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Cheney visits Afghanistan and wants more NATO troops

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visited Afghanistan on Thursday and met President Hamid Karzai ahead of a NATO summit where Washington will urge its allies to send more troops to fight a tough Taliban insurgency.

U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney speaks as the Afghan President Hamid Karzai looks on during a news conference in Kabul, March 20, 2008. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

NATO’s Afghan mission is one of the toughest challenges faced by the 59-year-old alliance and has led to open differences among allies over strategy and troop levels.

Cheney said the mission of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan would be high on the agenda of the summit in Bucharest in early April.

“ISAF has made a tremendous difference in the country and America will ask our NATO allies for an even stronger commitment for the future,” Cheney told a news conference in the Afghan capital, Kabul, where he made an unannounced visit.

ISAF has some 43,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting Taliban militants, who have regrouped since Afghan and U.S.-led forces toppled the hard-line Islamist movement from power after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch troops are engaged in the bulk of the fighting in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Other NATO members, notably France and Germany, have resisted U.S. pressure to allow their soldiers to operate outside the relatively safe northern part of the country.

“The United States and the other members of the coalition need to have a sufficient force here ... to deal with the threat that’s been represented by ... radicals and extremists, the likes of the Taliban and al Qaeda,” Cheney said.

The vice president later travelled to Bagram base near Kabul where a suicide bomber killed 14 people, including a U.S. and a South Korean soldier, when he was there in early 2007.

The Romanian Defence Ministry said one Romanian soldier was killed and another was wounded north of Qalat, in southern Afghanistan, on Thursday when their armoured vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.

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The difficulties NATO allies are facing in Afghanistan cannot be blamed solely on the refusal of some ISAF countries to send troops into Taliban strongholds. Progress in reconstruction and development has also been slow.

The U.N. Security Council acknowledged this on Thursday in a unanimously approved resolution that extended the mandate of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) for another year.

At the heart of the resolution is a strengthened role for the new top U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this month.

Western diplomats on the council said Eide would have to assume more responsibility in coordinating international civilian and military activities and will have to cooperate more effectively with the Afghan government.

The resolution calls for “more coherent support by the international community to the Afghan government” and an expanded U.N. presence in Afghanistan. It asks UNAMA to “strengthen the cooperation with ISAF at all levels.”

In an article published in The New York Times on Thursday, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, said lack of coordination among donors has meant that reconstruction aid often failed to arrive in Afghan areas cleared of insurgents.

“There is only one way to end the confusion: the United Nations must take on the primary coordination role, and donors must show a willingness to be coordinated,” Khalilzad wrote.

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Already cracks are appearing in support for the war. Canada, with 2,500 troops in southern Afghanistan, wants NATO allies to provide 1,000 more soldiers to reinforce its combat forces as a condition for keeping its troops in the country.

Ordinary Afghans are also growing increasingly frustrated with the presence of foreign troops, the slow pace of development, official corruption and the lack of security.

All sides agree the long-term key to stability is for the Afghan army and police to be able to provide security.

“The continuation of NATO in Afghanistan is very, very important,” Karzai told the news conference alongside Cheney at the heavily guarded presidential palace. “As the Afghan National Army gets stronger, there will be less pressure and responsibility on the foreign security forces.”

Afghanistan has accused Pakistan of harbouring militants along their rugged mountainous border, but the neighbours’ cooperation has improved since last year and both countries are now targets of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.

Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, and Radu Marinas in Bucharest; writing by Louis Charbonneau; editing by Mohammad Zargham