- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States is beginning to decide what its responsibilities will be in Afghanistan after U.S. combat troops leave, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday, but he ruled out permanent military bases in the strategically important country.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants U.S. military support even as he heavily criticizes the current U.S.-led military campaign for being too quick on the trigger. Nine Afghan boys died in an accidental air strike last week, reopening a raw issue.

Mr. Gates said the United States is interested in keeping a military presence in this former al Qaeda haven beyond the planned end of combat in three years. At a news conference with Mr. Karzai, Mr. Gates said a team of U.S. officials would arrive here next week to begin negotiations over a new compact for U.S.-Afghan security relations after 2014, when all international combat forces are supposed to be gone. U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001, and President Obama repeatedly has said the war is not open-ended.

The Pentagon chief also said the United States and its allies will be “well positioned” to begin withdrawing forces in July this year, although he gave no specifics. The withdrawal would continue through 2014, with Afghan forces gradually taking over the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency.

Mr. Gates‘ promise to draft a post-2014 “strategic partnership” with this poor, unstable nation is meant to reassure the mercurial Mr. Karzai, who fears that he and the country’s fragile civilian government might be overthrown without U.S. military backing. It is not clear how far-reaching or binding the document would be.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates (right) talks with U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus upon the Pentagon chief's arrival in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday, March 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Defense Department/Cherie Cullen)
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates (right) talks with U.S. Army Gen. David ... more >

Vexing questions remain about whether Kabul will be ready to govern by 2015 and prevent a return to extremist Taliban rule.

Mr. Gates opened his remarks by offering a personal apology for the children’s deaths last week, an incident that had prompted Mr. Karzai on Sunday to issue a statement calling the deaths unacceptable and reject an apology from U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander of American and NATO forces in the country.

“This breaks our hearts,” Mr. Gates said of the deaths. He called it a setback, too, for U.S. ties to the Afghan people — a relationship that is central to Gen. Petraeus’ strategy for countering the Taliban insurgency by winning the loyalty of ordinary Afghans.

Asked by a reporter whether he accepted Mr. Gates‘ apology, Mr. Karzai said, “I trust him fully when he says he’s sorry.” He added that words alone from even the most senior American defense official was not enough for Afghans tired of civilian casualties.

“They want it not reduced — they want it stopped,” Mr. Karzai said.

The top U.S. commander in the area where the nine Afghan boys were killed, Army Maj. Gen. John Campbell, told reporters traveling with Mr. Gates that the incident was regrettable, but he also said, without offering any details, “There is a lot more to that story.” He said it is still being investigated.

Gen. Campbell said 90 percent of civilian casualties in his area of responsibility are caused by the Taliban.

Mr. Gates arrived Monday on a two-day visit intended to give him a firsthand sense of how Mr. Obama’s war strategy is faring and whether it is on track to weaken the Taliban sufficiently while building up the capacity of Afghanistan’s own army and police.

“While no decisions on numbers have been made, in my view we will be well positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July, even as we redeploy others to different areas of the country,” he said. He immediately added a reassurance to Mr. Karzai that “we are not leaving” this summer. “Come September, October and beyond, there will still be substantial numbers of coalition troops still partnering with Afghans,” he said.

Mr. Karzai and Mr. Gates both mentioned that their discussions included the topic of negotiating a strategic partnership, which in Mr. Karzai’s eyes is a way to parlay the enormous U.S. investment in blood and treasury since 2001 into the foundations of long-term stability.

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