Afghan President Hamid Karzai welcomed outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Kabul Saturday with a mixture of praise for his commitment to Afghanistan and frustrated rhetoric ordering an end to coalition-caused civilian casualties. Gates is in the country on a previously unannounced farewell tour before he leaves office later this month.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai welcomed outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates shortly after his arrival Saturday in Afghanistan.
Mr. Karzai said Gates is a “friend” of the country and presented him with its highest governmental award, the Wazir Akbar Khan medal, for his work during the past four-and-a-half years.
But President Karzai also took the opportunity to voice several times the Afghans' frustration over civilian deaths resulting from coalition air strikes on homes. “[The] bombardment of civilian homes is an issue that the Afghans definitely want to end. We cannot take this anymore, and the Afghans want a change in it," he said.
Late last month, a NATO air strike on a home killed 14 Afghans, including women and children. The incident agitated the long-simmering tensions regarding the issue between the Afghans and coalition and caused Mr. Karzai to proclaim what he called his “last warning” to NATO on ending the strikes.
Speaking alongside President Karzai in a garden at the presidential palace Saturday evening, Gates expressed Washington's profound regret for the cost of this nearly 10-year war. “There is weariness in both our countries over the duration and cost of this conflict. I am keenly aware that ISAF military operations have at times impacted the Afghan people in unwelcome ways, from minor, but grating inconveniences to, in some rare but tragic cases, civilians accidentally killed or injured -- losses we mourn and profoundly regret," he said.
However, Gates had his own stern message for the Afghan government as the coalition prepares to start handing over security duties next month. “While the international commitment here is strong and durable, that commitment is not infinite in either time or resources. For the upcoming transition to be successful, the Afghan government and security forces must be willing to step up and take more and more responsibility for governing and defending their own territory," he said.
President Karzai's administration has long faced accusations of government corruption, undermining his rule both domestically and on the international stage.
But because of the recent security gains following a surge of coalition troops during the past year and a half, Gates said at a security conference in Singapore earlier Saturday that he thought he saw an end in sight to the Afghan war. “If we can further expand the security bubble, we have enough evidence that the Taliban are under pressure and that their capabilities are being degraded that perhaps this winter the possibility of some kind of political talks or reconciliation might be substantive enough to offer some hope of progress," he said.
While on his last official visit to Afghanistan as U.S. defense secretary, Gates is expected to meet with U.S. and Afghan troops.
Later in the week, he heads to Brussels for a NATO security conference, which is expected to focus in part on the situation in Afghanistan.