updated 4/13/2005 4:13:51 AM ET 2005-04-13T08:13:51

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited U.S. soldiers Wednesday on a morale boosting mission mixed with official talks on the future U.S. role in Afghanistan.

U.S. commanders told Rumsfeld in detailed briefing on their operations in Zabul Province along the Pakistan border that Taliban fighters still have some sanctuaries and support among the local population, but that U.S. forces operating with newly trained Afghan troops are making steady progress in eroding that support.

The defense chief flew to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan following a one-day visit to Iraq and then traveled by helicopter to Qalat where U.S. troops are running what they call a provincial reconstruction team that provides civic aid as well as security for reconstruction projects.

Qalat is in a region about 90 miles north of Kandahar and 30 miles from the Pakistan border where the Afghan government is struggling with a counternarcotics campaign while also fighting remnants of the Taliban militia that ruled the country before U.S. forces invaded in October 2001.

Precise U.S. role in Afghanistan unclear
Rumsfeld has not publicly discussed in detail the future U.S. role in Afghanistan, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai is known to favor arranging a long-term security relationship that could include some degree of U.S. access to air bases in this landlocked country.

Rumsfeld’s visit to Qalat underscored the importance the Pentagon places on the approach of using troops to facilitate reconstruction and civil affairs work.

While in Iraq on Tuesday, Rumsfeld said competence and capability matter more than continuity in the senior leadership of Iraqi security forces.

Reporters had asked Rumsfeld whether Iraqi officials in Baghdad had given him assurances about continuity in the senior leadership of Iraqi security forces.

“It’s not so much a matter of continuity as a matter of competence, of capability,” Rumsfeld said Tuesday during a news conference. “It’s a matter of not causing undue turbulence in the Iraqi security forces and not setting back the important progress that’s been achieved.”

Appearing with Rumsfeld in Iraq were Interim President Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, both Kurds and former rivals who have joined forces politically. Some Bush administration officials fear the new interim government will force out political rivals who have been working with U.S. officials since Iraq regained sovereignty last June.

Rumsfeld said Washington hopes to see in the new Iraqi government “highly competent people who are not going to politicize security forces” but will keep to the strategy of maintaining a U.S. presence until Iraq’s own forces are capable of defeating the insurgents.

In the United States, President Bush said the war in Iraq is “entering a new phase” as Iraqi security forces and government institutions become more capable and self-reliant.

“America and its coalition partners are increasingly playing more of a supporting role,” Bush said while visiting with soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. “Like free people everywhere, Iraqis want to be defended and led by their own countrymen. We will help them achieve that objective so Iraqis can secure their own nation. And then our troops will come home with the honor they have earned.”

Bush likened the April 9, 2003, toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad to the fall of the Berlin Wall, calling it “one of the great moments in the history of liberty.”

As is his practice on trips to Iraq, Rumsfeld held what he calls a “town hall-style” meeting with a few hundred soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division, the main U.S. force in Baghdad. He pinned Bronze Star medals and Purple Heart awards on several soldiers and participated in the re-enlistment of about 100 soldiers.

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