Tuesday, October 7, 2008

About 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be transferred from NATO to direct American command in a bid to improve the training and coordination of the Afghan military and police, Pentagon officials announced Monday.

The troops will fall under the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) command, giving commander Gen. David McKiernan better control of all U.S. military assets in the country, defense officials in Washington and Kabul said. The remaining 13,000 U.S. troops in the country will continue to report directly to the U.S. Central Command, soon to be headed by Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Gen. McKiernan is commander of both USFOR-A and the NATO force known as International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

A defense official in Washington, speaking on the condition that he not be named, said the reassignment would make Gen. McKiernan “completely” responsible for the training mission, which had been conducted in Afghanistan by both NATO and U.S. forces.

Concerns over corruption in the Afghan police and army are jeopardizing the U.S.-led mission.

The military is “counting on better training and coordination to root out any possible pitfalls that may have been missed when the training fell under two different chains of command,” said a U.S. defense official in Kabul, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Pentagon made the announcement as U.S. officials said they had no prior knowledge of meetings last month in Saudi Arabia between Saudi King Abdullah and representatives of the Afghan Taliban, a powerful Afghan warlord and the Afghan government.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Afghan Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan, told the Associated Press in Kabul that the meeting was not a negotiation. Mr. Zaeef said he was invited by Abdullah to share a meal breaking the Ramadan fast.

“This is not new; it’s a kind of a guest celebration,” said Mr. Zaeef, who was detained for four years in the U.S. military prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Mr. Zaeef said others invited included former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil and members of a resistance movement led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as well as Afghan government officials, whom he did not name.

The defense official in Afghanistan said the Bush administration was surprised that the Afghan government had not told the United States about the meeting in advance. He said, however, that he was not surprised by the meeting itself because of Saudi contacts with the Taliban dating to the group’s emergence in the late 1980s when it was fighting Soviet occupation.

The U.S. official cautioned that reports of “peace talks” were only speculation and that “U.S. officials still aren’t sure what took place … in Saudi Arabia.”

A senior State Department official said his department also was seeking clarification but supported efforts for Afghan reconciliation.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Monday endorsed efforts to reach out to members of the Taliban or other militants in Afghanistan who may be considered reconcilable.

“That is one of the key long-term solutions in Afghanistan, just as it has been in Iraq,” he told reporters en route to Europe, according to the Associated Press. “Part of the solution is reconciliation with people who are willing to work with the Afghan government going forward.”

Nadeem Kiyani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, told The Washington Times that his nation supports any efforts to reconcile and bring an end to the violence.

“[Afghan] President Hamid Karzai is reaching out as we have done,” Mr. Kiyani said.

Mr. Karzai said last week that he has urged the Saudi king repeatedly to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban.

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