Afghan president says his army is ready to step up
BUCHAREST, Romania — Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Thursday that his army is poised to play a greater role, and that by August, he expects his own forces to assume control of security in Kabul.
Yet NATO-led forces in Afghanistan — which includes some 19,000 American troops — will be engaged for the long haul, according to a new strategic plan unveiled at the 26-nation NATO summit in Bucharest. Under the plan, a more concerted effort to transfer authority to local leaders is required.
The goal is “to move toward a transition phase,” NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said during a Thursday news conference, where he was joined by Karzai and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
“Afghanistan must now fulfill its responsibility,” Karzai said. “If addressed fully, this (strategic plan) will bring about the security Afghan people are seeking.”
Despite that goal, there will be no immediate change for Marines and soldiers engaged in the fight. NATO leaders couldn’t say when the “transition phase” will begin to pay dividends that remove troops from the front lines. Indeed, the need for additional troop commitments has been among the major issues at this year’s summit, and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday that the U.S. intends to send many more combat forces to Afghanistan next year.
After a closed-door meeting on conditions in Afghanistan, NATO leaders emerged with an International Security Assistance Force “Strategic Vision” statement. The document called for Afghans to take the lead in providing its own security whenever possible, reaffirmed NATO’s long-term commitment to the country and placed emphasis on the need for closer engagement and more cooperation from neighbors such as Pakistan.
As Afghanistan’s security forces become more capable of leading security operations, ISAF’s role is to evolve to one of training and mentoring, the document states. The goal is to increase the size of Afghanistan’s National Army to 80,000 troops, up from its current level of about 55,000.
Ban concurred: “It is absolutely necessary that the international community continue to engage,” he said, while adding that the “Afghanistan National Army needs to be increasingly in the lead.”
NATO’s assertion of a long-term commitment on Thursday came after confirmation from French President Nicholas Sarkozy that he would be sending some 800 troops to Afghanistan’s eastern region. That contribution satisfied the Canadian demand that another ally step forward. Otherwise, Canada would be forced to pull its undermanned force from the south, where some of the fiercest fighting is taking place.
Now, American forces will be freed up in the east to support Canada in the south, de Hoop Scheffer said.
Despite the commitment from the French, and some smaller commitments from other NATO partners, the force level is still short of what NATO commanders say they need.
“We are not at the level of what, at this point in time, what our commanders looking forward say we need,” said National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley during a Thursday briefing in Bucharest.
However, much progress has been made during the summit, he said.