Cheney reaffirms pledge to Afghans
In visit, also prods allies to add troops
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan - Vice President Dick Cheney dismissed fears that Afghanistan could slide into a failed state, telling troops yesterday that the United States and NATO allies will not allow resurgent extremists to bully their way back into power.
More than 8,000 people died in Afghanistan last year, the most violent since 2001, when the United States invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime after Sept. 11. Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters have regrouped, especially in the south, and the job of coordinating aid and NATO troops from scores of nations has proved daunting.
"The Afghan people have no desire to be pulled back into the dark ages," Cheney said at Bagram Air Base during an unannounced trip to Afghanistan. "They're trusting America to stand by them in this fight, and that trust is being repaid every day. Having liberated this country, the United States and our coalition partners have no intention of allowing extremists to shoot their way back into power."
Cheney said NATO members need to step up military assistance for Afghanistan as it struggles to rebound from years of tyranny and war. That aid will be at the top of the agenda when leaders of the 26 nations in NATO hold a summit in Romania early next month.
NATO's force is about 43,000 troops, but NATO commanders seek more combat forces for areas in southern Afghanistan where Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters are the most active.
All 26 NATO nations have soldiers in Afghanistan, but European allies have yet to send more combat troops, and the already-stretched US military is filling the gap. The United States contributes one-third of the NATO force; about 12,000 other US troops operate independently from NATO.
The Pentagon says that by late summer, there will be about 32,000 US troops in Afghanistan - up from about 28,000 now.
US officials say Washington had to act because its European allies were not filling the shortfall in combat units. An independent study group cochaired by retired Marine Corps General James Jones and former UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering concluded early this year that Afghanistan is at risk and that the war is being fought with too few military forces and insufficient economic aid.
"America will ask our NATO allies for an even stronger commitment for the future," Cheney said earlier in Kabul, standing alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai at his heavily guarded presidential palace.
Cheney flew from Oman to the Afghan capital, then took a helicopter to the dusty presidential compound, where he held an hourlong, one-on-one discussion with Karzai.
Vice presidential advisers said Cheney wanted to talk to Karzai about the problems in the south, push him to take steps to extend Afghanistan's governance beyond Kabul, and stress the need for successful Afghan elections next year. Cheney also wanted to address ways the Afghan government could curb corruption and deal with the rising poppy production.