Afghanistan's defense minister and the top U.S. general in the country say they are working on plans to accelerate the growth of Afghanistan's security forces. The two spoke after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak says his government wants to reach the target of 70,000 troops by the end of 2008, three years ahead of schedule. And he wants the acceleration to be accompanied by an upgrade in training and equipment.
"We are discussing accelerating the development of the Afghan national security forces by accelerating the Afghan National Army's growth and providing it with enhanced protection, mobility, firepower and combat enablers," he said.
The commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, indicated that the United States is working on the request.
"The United States government is considering improving the capabilities and increasing the rate of development and size of the Afghan National Army and the police," he said.
General Eikenberry said increased insurgent activity in Afghanistan makes it necessary to move more quickly to develop the Afghan security forces.
"The Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, they need a higher level of protection, they need more mobility, they need better logistics systems, they need increased firepower," he said.
The general says the Afghan forces also need more training for leadership development in order to help them sustain their progress over the long term.
Also at the news conference, Defense Minister Wardak disputed Pakistani statements that Afghanistan must solve its insurgency problem on its own.
"The key is actually international cooperation because of the nature of the threat," he said. "In most of the cases, the country where the sanctuary is located, they can act effectively."
The minister made clear he wants Pakistan to do more to help eliminate terrorist bases on its side of the border, and to make it more difficult for terrorist groups to recruit fighters and gain public support.
"The issue is that we have to delegitimize terrorism and counter the support for its ideology," he said. "And we shall not only try to deny the terrorists the means to operate, but to deny them the means to survive. In this case I hope that Pakistan should. We will work with them closely to fulfill all these requirements."
Minister Wardak said Pakistan's role should include military action, but also law enforcement, intelligence work and providing alternatives to schools that teach Islamic extremism.
The minister also took the opportunity to thank outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Minister Wardak said Rumsfeld played a "fundamental role in delivering Afghanistan from years of destruction, occupation and civil war." He said Afghanistan will work to build on the U.S.-Afghan security relationship Secretary Rumsfeld helped create.
Two weeks ago, after his party lost badly in congressional elections due in large part to the situation in Iraq, President Bush announced he had decided to change the leadership at the Defense Department. Rumsfeld, who has led the department for the last six years, is serving until his successor is confirmed by the Senate, which is expected next month.