Biden makes surprise visit to Kabul

PROGRESS BRIEFING::The US vice president got a first-hand look at a US program to train and equip Afghan army and police officers before meeting President Karzai

AP and Reuters, KABUL

Wed, Jan 12, 2011 - Page 7

US Vice President Joe Biden visited a military training center in Afghanistan yesterday on day two of a surprise visit, getting a review of the effort to prepare Afghan forces to take over from the US-led coalition by the end of 2014.

During the visit to the Kabul Military Training Center just outside the capital, Biden was briefed on the program, which is costing US$20 billion for last year and this year. The program is also teaching recruits to read and write, because only 11 percent of enlisted personnel and 35 percent of noncommissioned officers in Afghanistan’s army and police are literate.

Biden later traveled to the presidential palace where he was to hold talks and have lunch with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He was accompanied by the top military commander in Afghanistan, US General David Petraeus, and the US ambassador. He was also to meet with US troops later in the day.

The coalition hopes to train about 300,000 army and police officers by the end of the year. The Afghan army now has 149,553 personnel and is projected to grow to 171,600 by October, according to NATO figures. The air force is scheduled to grow from 4,098 personnel last month to 5,500 by November. The police force is projected to hit 134,000 by October, up from 115,584 by the end of last year.

The US-funded program is paying for training, equipment and infrastructure. The funding for last year and this year is a large increase over the US$20 billion spent between 2003 and 2009.

The US plans to begin withdrawing combat forces from Afghanistan in July, but remains concerned that gains made in the nearly decade-long war could be reversible. There are also questions about the ability of Afghan security forces to take up the fight against a virulent insurgency.

In other developments, a US auditor for Afghanistan reconstruction, who said waste and fraud in efforts to rebuild the war-torn country may have cost US taxpayers billions of dollars, resigned yesterday.

Arnold Fields, a retired Marine Corps general, said he would step down on Feb. 4 after nearly three years as the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) overseeing tens of billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan.

In September, a top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, three Republican senators and non-profit group Project on Government Oversight, urged Obama to fire Fields, whom they accused of failing to do his job.

“At this time, having had this opportunity to contribute to the US mission to Afghanistan, I depart confident in the knowledge that SIGAR is positioned to provide essential support to the President’s strategy,” Fields said.

Fields has previously defended the work of his agency, which estimates that the US has spent US$51 billion on Afghanistan reconstruction since 2002, and that the number is set to rise to US$71 billion by next year.

“Under General Fields’ tenure, SIGAR produced numerous critical reports that have improved reconstruction efforts, and helped insure that US-funded programs are achieving their objectives,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.