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Rumsfeld Reaffirms U.S. Commitment to Afghanistan

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 21, 2005 – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to helping Afghanistan continue its road toward security and freedom during a joint news conference today with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld shakes hands with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, after a joint news conference, Dec. 21. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, USN

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Rumsfeld, who made a surprise visit to Afghanistan today after touring hurricane-devastated areas of Pakistan, told Karzai the United States will continue to stand by Afghanistan, even while making slight troop cuts there.

The visit came two days after the Defense Department announced plans to reduce number of troops serving in Afghanistan, currently at 19,000, by about 2,500 during the next year.

That announcement coincided with a major milestone for Afghanistan: the seating of its democratically elected National Assembly.

"I congratulate the Afghan people and government on this occasion," reporters quoted Rumsfeld as saying in Kabul.

The secretary said the United States and the free world hope Afghanistan will thrive as a peaceful and stable country and promised continued U.S. support to help it do so.

"We will be continuing as an active participant in NATO's role in Afghanistan, as well as our individual role with regard to counterterrorism efforts and training and equipping of Afghan security forces," Rumsfeld said during the news conference in Kabul.

The secretary noted that even after the drawdown, the United States will have more troops in Afghanistan than all over NATO countries, combined.

"We certainly remain committed to our long-term relationship (with Afghanistan)," reporters quoted the secretary as saying. "Together with your security forces and other coalition forces, we will continue to be focused on rooting out the Taliban and al Qaeda that still exist in causing difficulties."

Karzai expressed confidence in the Pentagon decision regarding troop numbers. "Afghanistan has total assurance of the United States that it will remain committed in helping in all spheres of life, including in the matter related to security," he said.

The Afghan president said the troop reductions won't affect the force focused on combating terrorism. "We are assured of the continued United States' support," he said, "so I don't think it will have an impact on the situation on the ground."

Counterterrorism operations remain the main focus of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Air Force Maj. Todd Vician, a Pentagon spokesman, told the American Forces Press Service.

"Our strategic goals for Afghanistan remain unchanged: to help the Afghan government develop the capacity to defend itself from external aggression and to ensure that its territory is not used as a safe haven by international terrorists," he said.

Working together toward that goal, these forces have removed the Taliban from power, eliminated al Qaeda and terrorist safe havens, and laid the groundwork so the Afghan people could vote for a democratic government, Vician said.

At the same time, the United States is continuing to help the Afghans build a capable and self-sufficient security force, he said. To date, nearly 27,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and almost 55,000 Afghan police have undergone training.

These Afghan forces, as well as other political and economic initiatives under way in Afghanistan, are critical to the country's long-term stability, he said.

Earlier during his trip, while en route to Pakistan, Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him he doubts that Osama bin Laden, if alive, is still in full command of al Qaeda, news reports said. The secretary said he finds it "interesting that we haven't heard from him in ... close to a year."

"I suspect that in any event, if he's alive and functioning, that he's probably spending a major fraction of his time trying to avoid being caught," reporters quoted Rumsfeld as saying.

"I have trouble believing that he's able to operate sufficiently to be in a position of major command over a worldwide al Qaeda operation, but I could be wrong. We just don't know."

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