- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday made a surprise stop in Afghanistan, where he promised President Hamid Karzai that the U.S. will prod European countries at an upcoming NATO summit to commit more troops to fight the Taliban.

“America will ask our NATO allies for an even stronger commitment for the future,” Mr. Cheney said, referring to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit April 2-4.

“All free nations have an interest in a secure, democratic Afghanistan,” Mr. Cheney said. “The United States and the other members of the coalition need to have a sufficient force here to be able to ensure security.”

U.S. forces have taken the lead in Afghanistan, with Canadian, British, Australian and Dutch soldiers also deploying to heavy fighting areas.

But German, French, Italian and Spanish troops have refused to leave the relative safety of areas in northern and western Afghanistan, prompting complaints and pleas from top U.S. officials.

Mr. Cheney, however, was diplomatic in expressing the need for an increased commitment.

“I think they’ve made a significant contribution in many parts of the country. And we believe that that commitment needs to continue, and perhaps be reinforced,” he said.

Mr. Karzai said that the Afghan army is improving but is not ready to take over security operations from NATO, indicating that it might be up to six years before there is no longer a need for an international presence.

“Until then, the cooperation between Afghanistan and the rest of the international community is a must, both for the war against terrorism and stability in Afghanistan,” Mr. Karzai said.

Mr. Cheney also touched on the new power-sharing government in Pakistan and said fighting al Qaeda in the mountainous border region with Afghanistan should be a priority.

“We believe … a government has an obligation to control its sovereign territory, to make certain that that territory doesn’t become a safe haven or a sanctuary for — especially — terrorist groups intending to do harm to others,” Mr. Cheney said. “I would expect that Pakistan will certainly fulfill that obligation in the years ahead.”

Mr. Cheney said he thinks the new Pakistani government will be “good and effective friends and allies of the United States, just as the previous government has been.”

After meeting with Mr. Karzai, Mr. Cheney had dinner with U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base and awarded medals to several service men and women: the Silver Star to Army Spc. Monica Brown; the Bronze Star Medal for Valor to Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher R. Phillips and Army Spc. Charles E. Bell Jr.; the Joint Service Commendation Medal to Marine Staff Sgt. Earl D. Lopez; and the Army Commendation Medal to Capt. Brian White.

Mr. Cheney’s stop was his second surprise visit on his weeklong tour of the Middle East. The first unannounced stop was in Iraq. He is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, where he will try to move forward peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

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