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Rumsfeld says cutting forces won't weaken Afghan mission

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Reducing the number of US troops in Afghanistan will not weaken the campaign against Taliban fighters and Al Qaeda terrorists who still threaten this war-torn country, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday.

''Our level of activity is substantial and continuous," Rumsfeld told a news conference outside the heavily guarded Presidential Palace after meeting with President Hamid Karzai. ''We certainly remain committed to our long-term relationship, the strategic partnership between our two countries."

A day earlier, he announced that the size of the US force in Afghanistan will shrink from about 19,000 currently to about 16,000 by next summer.

''We will continue to be focused on rooting out the Taliban and Al Qaeda that still exist in causing difficulties for your country," Rumsfeld told Karzai, who stood beside him at the news conference.

Karzai, noting that Vice President Dick Cheney had visited Kabul on Monday, told reporters the US government has assured the Afghans that a reduction in US forces will not undermine joint efforts to improve internal security.

''The United States has assured us of continued support and assistance on all matters," including security, Karzai said, adding that his own forces are becoming more capable of handling problems on their own.

There are now about 26,800 soldiers in the Afghan national army and about 55,000 national police. Rumsfeld said the remaining US troops would continue to help train and equip the Afghan security forces and also will work with NATO on a variety of security projects.

Rumsfeld told Karzai it was his 10th visit to Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in October 2001 that ousted the Taliban regime. More than four years later, US forces still have not captured Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who used Afghanistan as a base before the US invasion.

The defense secretary told reporters traveling with him that bin Laden, if still alive, is most likely hiding in the Afghan-Pakistan border area. He said he finds it hard to believe that bin Laden is able to fully command the Al Qaeda organization, since he presumably is spending a great deal of time and effort avoiding capture.

On a day that began before dawn in Washington, Rumsfeld crossed 11 time zones on three airplane fights and six helicopter rides that included stops in Pakistan before finishing at Bagram air base, north of Kabul.

In Pakistan, Rumsfeld toured US military units that are part of an international humanitarian relief operation for victims of the Oct. 8 earthquake, which killed more than 80,000 people and forced more than 3 million from their homes as it devastated parts of northwestern Pakistan and the disputed Kashmir region.

US officers said an obvious side-effect of the US relief effort is an improving perception of America by ordinary Pakistanis.

Marine Corps Colonel Mark Losak, chief of staff to the US disaster assistance coordinator, said in a brief interview that the US military has been able to change some Pakistanis' minds about the struggle against extremism that is at the heart of the global war on terrorism.

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