updated 1/10/2011 5:12:08 PM ET 2011-01-10T22:12:08

Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Afghanistan Monday to meet with President Hamid Karzai and assess progress toward a key objective of handing over security from foreign to Afghan forces.

The U.S. plans to begin withdrawing combat forces from Afghanistan in July but remains concerned that gains made in the nearly decade-long war could be reversible. There are also questions about the ability of Afghan security forces to take up the fight against a virulent insurgency. NATO hopes Afghan forces will assume full responsibility for security by 2014.

Tensions have surfaced between the Obama administration and Karzai, whose government is plagued by charges of corruption. U.S. officials have expressed grave concerns about how this is affecting efforts to stabilize and rebuild the country.

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Just a month ago, Obama came to Afghanistan but did not meet with Karzai. The White House said that foul weather foiled plans to take Obama to the presidential palace in Kabul from the Bagram Air Field military base where he landed, and that technical difficulties prevented the two presidents from talking by secure videoconference.

Although the two leaders spoke briefly by telephone, the change of plans was seen by some in Karzai's circle as a snub. And it was unclear whether part of the reason for Biden's visit was to smooth things over with Karzai.

A senior U.S. official traveling with Biden tried to present a united front, saying the U.S. and Karzai are "very much on the same page" after a NATO summit in Lisbon in November and the December U.S. review of its war strategy. The official said the visit comes at a "pivot point in our policy" with the U.S. moving from a troop surge last year to the planned start of a pullout and it would give Biden an opportunity to discuss progress toward the transition.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity and was not authorized to talk to the media.

NATO and U.S. officials insist they are making progress in quelling the insurgency. In an end-of-year review of strategy in Afghanistan, the Obama administration said the U.S. had made advances in its push against the Taliban in the south — the insurgents' traditional stronghold — but acknowledged that "gains remain fragile and reversible."

The Taliban has repeatedly shown its ability to regroup, despite constant offensives by the international coalition, and to carry out attacks across Afghanistan seemingly at will. Last year was the deadliest for NATO forces in the country, with more than 700 troops killed.

Afghanistan is also suffering from a lack of social services, unemployment is rife and Afghans complain that they have seen little tangible improvement in their lives since the 2001 invasion that toppled the Taliban. The insurgents, in turn, have tried to capitalize on that frustration, tapping into the discontent to win new supporters.

Karzai has accused foreign governments of meddling in Afghanistan's internal affairs, most notably taking issue with criticism following fraud-plagued presidential elections in 2009 and parliamentary elections last year.

The White House official said Obama has made it clear that the U.S. was not "here to govern Afghanistan, we're not here to nation build." He said the purpose of the mission was to help Afghans reach a stage "where they can fully assume the responsibilities of governing the country and securing the country."

"That's exactly what (Obama's) vision is, and it's also President Karzai's vision as I understand it," he said.

American troops are the bulk of the 140,000-strong NATO force that has been battling the Taliban.

The White House said Biden, who last visited in January 2009, met Monday night with U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He also plans to visit U.S. troops and tour an Afghan Army training center.

Biden is also reported to be heading to Islamabad this week to deliver a message that the U.S. will send more help to Pakistan, which U.S. and Afghan officials see as a key partner in routing the Taliban.

The Taliban's top leadership is believed to be hiding somewhere along the rugged and porous Afghan-Pakistan border, but Islamabad has resisted pressure to crack down on them.

The challenges faced by NATO forces in Afghanistan were brought home by an alliance announcement Monday that airstrikes had killed three Afghan police officers and wounded three mistaken for insurgents setting up an ambush.

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The incident was at least the fourth in roughly a month in which coalition troops killed civilians or friendly forces in error — lapses that have threatened to further sour Afghan attitudes toward the foreign troops.

In Kandahar, scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, a suicide car bomber struck a border police convoy Monday, killing at least two officers and a civilian, said Zalmai Ayubi, the spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor.

NATO says it is making progress in battling the Taliban with major offensives in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. An extra contingent of more than 1,000 U.S. Marines will be deployed in Helmand in what coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz said Monday was a temporary operation to take advantage of gains on the ground.

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Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar and Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Interactive: NATO's role in Afghanistan

Video: New 'fighting season' to begin in Afghanistan

  1. Closed captioning of: New 'fighting season' to begin in Afghanistan

    >>> this war represents an epic failure, a national embarrassment and moral blight on our nation.

    >> that democrat of california speaking thursday on the house floor the same day the pentagon said it's sending 1400 more marines to afghanistan . the pentagon saying the additional boots on the ground will help the u.s. keep the momentum going against the taliban . of course, more troops may not be the answer. nato sources say the taliban is just as strong as they were a year ago before president obama 's surge with 25,000 fighters facing allied troops . joe klein just returned from afghanistan . his new article appears in "time"'s most recent issue.

    >> we're going to have most troops out u by 2012 . no doubt about ut. they measure things in afghanistan in terms of fighting seasons, which begin when the opium crop is harvested and end when the marijuana crop is harvested.

    >> what does that have to do with it?

    >> the taliban are farmers, but it's also the good weather period. there's consensus that david petraeus is going to get another whole fighting season next year, then in 2012 , we'll start drawing down dramatically, leaving a small force similar to the one in iraq now.

    >> what, if this is estimatable, what will be the distwings between an american withdrawal that started now,in six months from now a year or two after we left.

    >> two years from now is too far down the road. last fighting season was probably the best since 2001 . we pushed them out this past six months. that where i go. to the 80% taliban areas. there were places we couldn't go. when i went this december, we had pushed them out. they're gone. they're going to come back.

    >> doesn't that speak to the futility?

    >> maybe. the hope is that the difference between my first and second trip is that you had afghan national army troops there the second time. they're there. the people seem to trust them and were building them. in fact, it's a real army. what we used to call the northern alliance . these guys have been fighting the taliban for hundreds and hundreds of years. they know what they're doing. they love fighting. there's a chance we can keep the tall dan ban out out of those areas.

    >> but to my question, does it matter when we go home?

    >> yeah, i think that we need another year to really do the clearing and to train up the afghans. after that, it's going to be their problem. but we have a huge national security issue in that region. pakistan. the biggest national security threat the country faces. they have upwards of 80 nuclear weapons. a history of military coupes including ones held by islamists. you could have a coupe in afghanistan led by elements that that were sympathetic. nobody has a clear since because they play a double game. on the one hand, they're kind of our allies. on the one, they're funding the taliban . we're giving them economic aide. they've allowed bin laden to live there.

    >> so, the good news is that to the extent the strategy is to clear some valleys, they have done that. the best since 2 e. i'm not suggesting that you are.

    >> but i am less mess mystic than i was before. once again, the quality of our troops on the ground is similar. the best possible way with the smallest amount of violence. the captains out there are going to the the next great leaders in this country. these are kids who have to be the mayor of the town in which they go. they have to deal with the local council . their going to come back here and take this country.

    >> we would welcome that sort of trained leadership. you mentioned the troops between your trips to afghanistan , you spent time on american bases here. one of the aspects of the way we have run this war that doesn't get nearly enough attention is the fact we send the same soldiers, the same troops, over and over and over and over and over again. five or six. it's incomprehensible. what is the psychological state of the american troops as you see it?

    >> well, i followed up on the kids who protected me when i was there. the kids i embedded with are at ft. carson, colorado. and the level of felonies and misdemeanors among american troops returning home has doubled. the levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, of brain trauma, are up. what i'm hearing is that the va isn't doing nearly the job it should be.

    >> last thing, you say we're spending a million dollars per soldier per year, that is not being spent on mental health or home ownership assistance.

    >> we spend more on machinery than on the kids and the mind o and soul of the soldier is the most important piece of machinery we have.

    >> and of that million dollars, what percentage gets spent on equipment --

    >> i don't know the breakdown, but it's far greater than the amount that goes to the kids.

    >> i can't thank you enough for your efforts and reporting on this. and informing the rest of us who don't have the opportunity to spend time the way that you have in that part of the world.

    >> thanks. it's what we're supposed to be doing.

    >> thank you very much. joe klein . check it out.

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