Cheney: Afghanistan Needs NATO Help

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- 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.

"We believe the commitment needs to continue and perhaps needs to be reinforced," Cheney said.

Standing beside Afghan President Hamid 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."

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.

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.

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.

The bulk of the increase is the 3,200 Marines President Bush has agreed to send. About 2,300 troops of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, have begun arriving at their new base in Kandahar, the Taliban's former power base.

An official who briefed reporters during the trip from Oman to Afghanistan said Cheney wanted to compare notes with Karzai to make the upcoming NATO summit a success.

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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