The U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan says that country's government is making considerable progress in building up its security forces. However, the U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, says some foreign troops may be needed there indefinitely.
While the Bush administration has acknowledged major problems in helping develop security forces in Iraq, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan is claiming significant strides in that country in fielding a local army and police force.
At a year-end press briefing at the State Department, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad made clear that the Afghanistan government of President Hamed Karzai will need some foreign security help for the indefinite future.
But he said its relative dependence on the U.S.-led coalition and NATO security assistance force is on the decline.
He said while there was no Afghan national army at all in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that ousted the Taleban regime, the Kabul government now has an 18,000-member force that has won the confidence of U.S. commanders and troops:
"When we started in Afghanistan there was zilch, zero national army," he said. "Now we're at 18,000, the Afghan army, and they don't run away from a fight. Our troops love to have them with them. They actually would rather not go anywhere to a fight without them. They are so good. I mean, here has not been a single instance in which an Afghan unit has shied away from the battle and run home."
Ambassador Khalilzad said 33,000 Afghan police officers have been trained, the country's intelligence service is being reformed, and a presidential security force is nearing completion to protect Mr. Karzai, who won elections in October and was sworn into office earlier this month.
He said the election process, due to continue with parliamentary voting in April, has had a positive effect on security in the country, with more people identifying with the political process at the expense of the Taleban and al-QaIda.
The U.S. envoy also said more than half of the country's estimated 50,000 militiamen have been decommissioned, in part because of a rule that barred regional leaders with active militias from running in the October election.
Mr. Khalilzad said he believed the Taleban leader Mullah Omar, whom U.S.-led forces are seeking along with Osama bin Laden, is still alive and in hiding in either Afghanistan of Pakistan.
He complained of a lack of actionable intelligence in the manhunt, and said while the level of cooperation from Pakistan is better, the United States clearly needs continued, and increased, Pakistani help.
The U.S. ambassador, an Afghan-American, also lamented the big increase in the narcotics trade in Afghanistan, where the United Nations says opium cultivation jumped by more than 60 percent last year.
He said as long as there is demand for narcotics, they will be produced but added he is fairly optimistic that the upward trend in Afghanistan will be reversed next year.