- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., in Afghanistan to monitor progress ahead of the U.S. troop drawdown this summer, assured Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the U.S. will continue to assist his country, saying Tuesday that America is “not leaving if you don’t want us to leave.”

Mr. Biden said coalition forces have managed to stop Taliban momentum in key parts of the country but warned that the gains are “fragile and reversible.”

He emphasized the need for strong Afghan forces, who are to assume the lead on security in 2014 under a NATO agreement, and cooperation from Pakistan to root out insurgents along its border.

The nine-year-old war in Afghanistan has been a defining piece of the administration’s foreign policy, as President Obama ordered a 30,000-troop surge in the country while ratcheting down U.S. forces in Iraq. At the same time, the White House has been careful to predicate its buildup on a promise of beginning to draw down those troops in July.

Mr. Biden arrived in Afghanistan on Monday in a surprise visit aimed at tracking the nation’s progress as it begins a three-year transition toward taking charge of its own security.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Mr. Karzai, Mr. Biden stressed the U.S. is there to assist Afghan officials but not to interfere.

“It is not our intention to govern or to nation-build,” he said. “As President Karzai often points out, this is the responsibility of the Afghan people, and they are fully capable of it.”

Still, Mr. Biden - who by all accounts was skeptical initially of Mr. Obama’s plan to double down in Afghanistan - pledged, “We are not leaving if you don’t want us to leave.”

An administration official, who would not speak on the record, stressed to reporters traveling with Mr. Biden that his remarks were “completely consistent” with current U.S. policy on Afghanistan and what was said in November at an international conference in Lisbon dedicated to the future of the country.

As a senator in early 2008, Mr. Biden had a behind-the-scenes dust-up with Mr. Karzai, whose government is accused of widespread graft and corruption. Mr. Biden, then at the helm of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and two colleagues stormed out of a formal dinner with the Afghan leader because of frustration over the issue, according to subsequent media reports.

Earlier this week, Mr. Biden held meetings with U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and Gen. David H. Petraeus.

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