KABUL (AFP) – US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it would be “premature” to change strategy in the Afghan war on a surprise farewell trip to the war-torn country Saturday.
Gates also urged President Hamid Karzai’s government to “step up” to ensure that the process of handing control of security from foreign to Afghan troops, due to start within weeks, was a success.
While offering reassurance that the international community would not “rush to the exits” after the planned full withdrawal of foreign combat troops in 2014, he also stressed that the commitment to Afghanistan was not forever.
Gates’s comments came hours after he touched down in Kabul for a visit which will focus on meetings with some of the roughly 90,000 US troops in Afghanistan after four-and-a-half years heading up the Pentagon.
The trip also comes at a crucial moment for US policy on the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan.
The United States is expected to start troop withdrawals in July but the White House is still debating the scale and pace of the drawdown.
Pressure for a swifter drawdown has grown since US Navy SEALs killed Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last month.
The US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was triggered by the Taliban’s failure to hand over bin Laden in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Speaking at a press conference alongside Karzai, Gates told reporters that he was in favour of sticking with the current war strategy before assessing progress at the end of the year.
“Making any change prior to that time would be premature,” he added.
Gates also called on the Afghan government to do more to make the transition process, due to start around July with Afghan security forces taking control from foreign troops in seven areas, a success.
“For this upcoming transition to be successful, the Afghan government and security forces must be willing to step up and take more and more responsibility,” he said.
He added that civilian casualties in the country were “losses we mourn and profoundly regret.”
Karzai this week issued some of his strongest comments yet on the long-burning issue, saying that international attacks on the homes of ordinary Afghans were “banned” and that NATO risked becoming an “occupying force.”
That came after the deaths of what the Afghan president said was 14 civilians including 11 children in an air strike in the southern Helmand province.
As Gates arrived in Afghanistan, the deaths of four international troops were announced by the military, without disclosing their nationalities. They bring to at least 224 the foreign military death toll so far this year.
NATO commanders have said this year’s fighting season will be a key test of gains made by a US-led troop surge, but more foreign troops have already been killed in April and May than in the same months of any previous year.
Gates told reporters en route to the Afghan capital that the amount of money the United States spends on the war — roughly $120 billion a year — should not shape the decision on the speed of the withdrawals.
Some US officials and lawmakers say this should be a key factor amid a fragile domestic economy.
“I think that once you’ve committed, that success of the mission should override everything else. Because the most costly thing of all would be to fail,” Gates said.
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