Vice President Dick Cheney said Thursday the United States will ask NATO countries to step up their commitment to help Afghanistan recover from years of tyranny and war.
He met Afghan President Hamid Karzai ahead of a NATO summit where Washington will urge its allies to send more troops to the war-torn country.
"America will ask our NATO allies for an even stronger commitment for the future," Cheney told a news conference in the Afghan capital, Kabul, where he made an unannounced visit. "All free nations have an interest in a secure, democratic Afghanistan. We believe the commitment needs to continue and perhaps needs to be reinforced."
Standing beside Karzai at a news conference, the vice president also said neighboring Pakistan has an obligation to battle insurgent activity along the border between the two countries.
He said the Pakistani government, like that of Karzai, is a target for al-Qaida and other extremists. "They have as big a stake as anyone else," he said.
Cheney's remarks came after a meeting with Karzai at the Afghan leader's palace to discuss ways the country's fragile government can counter rising threats from al-Qaida and Taliban militants.
"During the last six years, the people of Afghanistan have made a bold, confident journey throwing off the burden of tyranny and winning your freedom," he said with a nod to Karzai. "The process has been difficult, but the courage of the nation has been unwavering."
'We walk with you'
He said there has been remarkable progress in improving security forces and rebuilding in the country even as it struggles in a continuing war with insurgents. "We walk with you still," said Cheney.
Karzai also hailed progress, saying the Afghan army was getting stronger "day by day," but adding that international support will be needed for years to come.
Cheney said the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan was "firm and unshakeable," but the goal was for the Afghan army and police to take a greater role in providing security as time goes on.
The Afghan army currently has around 70,000 troops, but the Afghan Defense Ministry say a much larger force is needed.
The Afghan army is relatively well-trained and has taken a much greater role in fighting the Taliban over the last year, but the police lag far behind, are poorly trained, notoriously corrupt and often flee in the face of Taliban attacks.
"The continuation of NATO in Afghanistan is very, very important," Karzai told the news conference alongside Cheney at the heavily guarded presidential palace. "As the Afghan National Army gets stronger, there will be less pressure and responsibility on the foreign security forces."
As to his own political future, Karzai declined to say whether he will seek another term as president in elections scheduled next year. He said he wants to leave a legacy of strong political leaders in Afghanistan's future and that perhaps he could best achieve that by not running for re-election.
Cheney flew to the Afghan capital from Oman and took a helicopter straight to the presidential palace where he greeted Karzai with a hearty handshake. The two strolled down a red carpet together, reviewing troops before heading inside the palace for their talks.
Visit initially secret
Reporters were not allowed to disclose Cheney's visit until he had arrived safely. It is Cheney's fourth vice presidential trip to Afghanistan. Cheney, who is on a 10-day trip to the Middle East, visited Iraq earlier this week.
After the news conference with Karzai, the vice president took a 20-minute helicopter ride to Bagram Air Base to get a classified briefing and spend some time with troops there.
More than 8,000 people died in Afghanistan last year, making it the most violent year since 2001 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to oust the hardline Taliban regime after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding in rugged, mountainous areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
"The president asked the vice president to meet with President Karzai in advance of the NATO summit to discuss progress in a democratic Afghanistan as well as the work that lies ahead, especially in the south," Cheney spokeswoman Lea Ann McBride said in advance of the meeting with the Afghan leader.
Problems in Afghanistan will be a key topic at the NATO summit early next month in Romania. NATO's force is about 43,000-strong, but commanders have asked for more combat troops for areas in southern Afghanistan where the insurgency is the most active.
Troops from Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States have done the majority of the fighting against Taliban militants. France, Spain, Germany and Italy are stationed in more peaceful parts of the country.
Canada, which has 2,500 troops in Kandahar province, recently threatened to end its combat role unless other NATO countries provide an additional 1,000 troops to help the anti-Taliban effort there. Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said he expected a pledge for troops before or during the summit April 2-4 in Bucharest, Romania.
The U.S. contributes one-third of the NATO force, and also has about 12,000 other U.S. troops operating independently from NATO. The Pentagon says that by late summer, there will be about 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan — up from about 28,000 now.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Thursday to give an expanded U.N. political mission in Afghanistan authority to coordinate international civilian and military efforts that are intended to bolster the Afghan government as it confronts escalating violence.
"Afghanistan is one of the most important issues facing the world, because the struggle against terrorism and against extremism in that part of the world is the defining challenge of our time," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said.
U.N. mandate renewed
Renewing the mandate for another year gives the mission and Kai Eide of Norway, the new U.N. special representative in Afghanistan, responsibility for providing "more coherent support by the international community to the Afghan government" and for leading the U.N. in "a strengthened and expanded presence throughout the country."
The resolution, circulated by Italy, expresses particular concern about "increased violent and terrorist activities by the Taliban, al-Qaida, illegally armed groups, criminals and those involved in the narcotics trade, and the increasingly strong links between terrorism activities and illicit drugs."
The 15-member council first established the U.N. mission in Afghanistan on March 28, 2002. The mission provides technical help, political and strategic advice and other support for the Afghan government, while also promoting human rights and managing aid for people struggling to rebuild their lives.