Afghan President Hamid Karzai made it clear today that his country's security forces will need 15 to 20 years of financial and training assistance.
Karzai made his statement at a news conference with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and just a week after President Obama outlined his strategy for Afghanistan which calls for a surge of 30,000 troops before he starts withdrawing them in 2011.
"We hope that the international community, in particular the U.S., as our first ally, helps us reach the ability -- in terms of economic ability as well -- to sustain a force that can protect Afghanistan with the right numbers and the right equipment," Karzai said.
"Afghanistan is looking forward to taking over the responsibility in terms of paying for its forces and delivering to its forces out of its own resources, but that will not be for another 15 years," he said.
In the past, Karzai has said he hoped to have Afghan forces take the lead in the country's security in five years. That is still the goal, he indicated, but it would require up to two decades of assistance to get there.
Gates did not dispute that timeline, but emphasized the U.S. desire for Afghan security forces to be trained quickly so they could begin taking over security for parts of the country in July 2011.
"We know that you prefer to have Afghans protecting Afghans, and that is our goal as well," Gates said. "Our troops are here only as long as it takes to defeat your enemies. We fill fight by your side until Afghan forces are large enough and strong enough to secure your nation on their own."
The U.S. hopes to bulk up Afghan forces to 400,000 by 2013, a huge increase from the current level of 97,000 soldiers and 94,000 police officers.
Efforts to win public support were rocked today by angry accusations from residents of Laghman Province who charged that a raid by U.S. special forces killed 12 civilians, including a woman. When the protesters tried to bring the bodies of the dead towards the governor's house, they were stopped by Afghan troops. At one point, the Afghan soldiers fired into the crowd, killing one person, officials said.
The U.S. rejected the claims that civilians were killed. Military sources said the raid was carried out with Afghan forces and targeted a Taliban leader responsible for roadside bombs and suicide attacks in the region.
During the raid, U.S. troops came under fire from several directions, killing seven insurgents and capturing four, U.S. officials said.
"We are aware of civilian casualty allegations, however there are no operational reports to substantiate those claims of harming civilians, including women and children during this operation," said Navy Capt. Jane Campbell.
Gates was asked about the Laghman accusations, but he did not respond directly.
"I know there is concern that more international troops will lead to more Afghan civilian injuries and deaths," Gates said. "Our top priority remains civilians. We will do everything in our power to prevent casualties."
Gates pointed out that civilian casualties have reduced dramatically under Gen. Stanley McChrystal's watch.
Karzai and Gates Assail Corruption in Afghanistan
Karzai, who won a new term in an election that was tainted by charges of massive voter fraud, said he would submit his complete cabinet by next Tuesday, acknowledging the importance that competent, transparent ministers would have on the endemic corruption in the country.
"It's a malaise affecting our society. It's preventing us from progress. It's stealing revenues away from us. The better we function there [on corruption], the sooner we'll be able to pay for ourselves and sustain ourselves," he said.
Gates acknowledged something that American officials rarely spend much time on discussing: corruption within Western companies and the complicity that the West has in facilitating corruption in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries on the planet.
"The vast amounts of money the international community has has been an enabler, if you will, and has created a significantly larger temptation that it had been perhaps in the past," Gates said. "President Karzai has taken responsibility for dealing with the problem in so far as Afghans are concerned. We have to do what we can do to help make it more difficult for people to misbehave."