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U.S. defence chief on surprise trip to Afghanistan

07 march 2011, 14:25
0
Robert Gates and Hamid Karzai. ©AFP
Robert Gates and Hamid Karzai. ©AFP
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates landed in Afghanistan Monday to gauge progress in the war with the Taliban amid tensions with President Hamid Karzai after nine children died in a NATO air strike, AFP reports.

Gates, greeted on his arrival in Kabul by the U.S. commander of troops in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, was due to hold talks and a press conference with Karzai on Monday as part of a two-day visit.

The trip is likely to be dominated by questions over the deaths of civilians in international military operations.

The day before his arrival, Karzai angrily rejected a rare public apology from Petraeus over last week's accidental deaths of nine children as they collected firewood in Kunar, eastern Afghanistan, saying it was "not enough".

"Civilian casualties are a main cause of worsening the relationship between Afghanistan and the US," a statement from his office quoted Karzai as saying.

Hundreds of people took to the streets of Kabul on Sunday to protest against the deaths, shouting slogans including "Death to America -- death to the invaders".

Civilian casualties from coalition military operations against Taliban insurgents have long been a source of friction between Kabul and its Western allies and have aggravated difficult relations between Washington and Karzai.

But the latest furore comes at a highly sensitive time for the international military effort in Afghanistan, where 97,000 of the roughly 140,000 foreign troops are from the United States.

Afghan forces are due to start taking responsibility for security in a limited number of areas from July, allowing foreign troop withdrawals to start, and they are due to assume control across the country in 2014.

Karzai is expected to give details of where the transition process will start on March 21.

Gates has yet to indicate how many of the 97,000 American forces in the country could be withdrawn.

The defense secretary is expected to visit troops in Afghanistan's east and south during the trip, as well as holding talks with Karzai, Petraeus and US Ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry.

Press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters travelling with Gates that this was "not a decision-making trip" but added: "This will certainly inform him (Gates) on making those decisions in coming months."

It is the 13th trip to Afghanistan for Gates, who was last in Kabul in December and who plans to step down later this year.

Morrell said that "we are going to go south, we are going to go east, and he will come away from this visit hopefully with a better sense of how far we've come in the past three months."

Gates and military commanders say coalition forces, backed up by a surge of 30,000 US reinforcements ordered just over a year ago, have recently made headway against the Taliban, pushing insurgents out of strongholds in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.

But the US-led campaign in the south -- seen as the focus of the war and the birthplace of the Taliban -- will face a crucial test in the spring and summer, when the militant Islamists traditionally launch offensives.

Gates is due to travel to Germany and Brussels on Wednesday ahead of a meeting of NATO defence ministers from Thursday, where the war in Afghanistan and current crisis in Libya are expected to top the agenda.


By Dan De Luce

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