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Afghanistan 'unable to pay for troops for 15 years'

Mr Karzai was optimistic Afghan troops would assume control in five years

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai has warned that it will take 15 years before the country is able to pay for the cost of its own security forces.

After talks with visiting US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Mr Karzai said he hoped the US and the international community would continue funding them.

Mr Gates said the US would not turn away from Afghanistan and abandon it.

His unannounced arrival in Kabul came a week after US President Barack Obama said he was sending 30,000 more troops.

Nato member states have agreed to deploy another 7,000 soldiers between them.

On Sunday, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm Mike Mullen, bluntly told troops in Kentucky: "We are not winning, which means we are losing.

"As we are losing, the message traffic out there to [militant] recruits keeps getting better and better and more keep coming," he said.

Meanwhile, in a sign of the country's security difficulties, there were reports on Tuesday that Afghan officers had opened fire during a protest by villagers over the deaths of civilians, which they say occurred during a Nato operation.

According to one report, the Afghan soldiers fired into the air, but at least one person was killed.

'Long-term partners'

At a joint news conference at the presidential palace in Kabul on Monday, Mr Gates was keen to stress that the US would not desert Afghanistan, despite Mr Obama's announcement that a gradual military withdrawal could begin in 18 months.

Robert Gates: "We know that you prefer to have Afghans protecting Afghans"

The two countries would need to be long-term partners, he said.

The defence secretary said Mr Karzai needed to take a tougher line on corruption, but added that many ministers were competent and did not need to be replaced when a new cabinet is announced in the coming days.

Mr Karzai said he was committed to doing so and that he would inform parliament of the names of a number of proposed ministers.

Both men then agreed that it was a priority to strengthen the Afghan security forces in order to help international troops tackle insurgents.

But Mr Karzai warned that it would be a long time before Afghanistan would be able to pay the cost of maintaining its own army and police force, which the US wants to quadruple in size to 400,000 troops by 2013.

"We hope that the international community and the United States, as our first ally, will help Afghanistan reach the ability to sustain a force," he said.

"Afghanistan is looking forward to taking over responsibility in terms of paying for its forces and delivering to its forces with its own resources, but that will not be for another 15 years."

Afghan soldier
The US wants the number of Afghan security personnel to rise to 400,000

But Mr Karzai was also cautiously optimistic that his country would be able to begin taking over responsibility for security in some "critical" parts of the country within two years, before taking charge nationwide in five years' time.

The president later condemned what his office said was the killing of six civilians in an overnight operation by Nato-led forces in the eastern province of Laghman.

"Coalition forces in Afghanistan carried out an operation near the capital of Laghman in Armul village," a statement said. "As a result of which, six innocent civilians, including one woman, were martyred."

Local residents have protested against the civilian deaths, which they and provincial officials say number 12. One report suggests that at least one person was killed during a protest about the deaths, when Afghan soldiers fired into the air.

The Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said its troops killed seven militants and detained another four after coming under hostile fire while pursuing a member of the Taliban responsible for suicide bombings in the area.

"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 a spokeswoman, Capt Jane Campbell.

Tackling corruption

On his way to Kabul, Mr Gates told reporters he believed the US had mistakenly abandoned Afghanistan after Soviet troops withdrew and understood that Afghans feared they would be left to fight the Taliban alone.

He said he would assure Mr Karzai and his advisers that "we are not going to repeat the situation in 1989" and that "we intend to be their partner for a long time to come".

"As the security situation improves and we're able, over time, to reduce our forces, the civilian, developmental, economic and other kinds of relations between us will become the predominant part of the relationship," he added.

As the security situation improves and we're able to reduce our forces, the civilian, developmental, economic and other kinds of relations between us will become the predominant part of the relationship
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates

Mr Gates also said the US would be "watching the appointments that get made" in Afghanistan's new cabinet, and that it was important to have "capable and honest ministers" in the crucial roles.

The BBC's Martin Patience in Kabul says the US is running out of patience with Afghan promises to tackle corruption and now wants to see clear action taken against senior officials found to be corrupt.

On Tuesday, the mayor of Kabul, Abdul Ahad Sahebi, said he would appeal against a four-year prison sentence for corruption.

Mr Sahebi was found guilty in absentia on Monday of awarding a contract without opening it up to competition, and was ordered to repay $16,000 (£9,800) that was allegedly lost as a result.

But he told a news conference in Kabul that he was the victim of a plot by "powerful people".

It was the first conviction of a senior Afghan official since Mr Karzai came under international pressure to tackle corruption following his disputed re-election.



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