Armitage: Bush might speed Afghan aid
The United States could accelerate its aid to Afghanistan during President George W. Bush's second term, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said on Wednesday.
Armitage also insisted that US forces would leave the re-emerging country once the American-trained Afghan Army is up to speed - but declined to forecast when that might be. Aid groups have expressed concern that international aid for Afghanistan could wane after 2004, an election year for both Bush, who sent US troops to oust the Taliban in 2001, and Afghan President-elect Hamid Karzai.
A foreign aid bill which passed the US Senate in September foresees spending of US$929 million in Afghanistan in 2005, down from US$1.2 billion this year.
But Armitage, who congratulated Karzai and the Afghan people on their first ever presidential election last month, insisted on a brief visit to Kabul that US backing will remain strong. "The only possible change that might occur in the next four years of George W. Bush is to accelerate even further our assistance and support for Afghanistan," Armitage said.
Much American aid to Afghanistan goes toward training its fledgling national Army, a force designed to replace warlord militias currently being demobilised and allow the currently 17,000 US troops hunting Taliban and Al-Qaeda rebels to go home. American officers in charge of the training program say they are on target to bring the currently 14,000-strong force up to the target level of 70,000 by 2007.
The US ambassador in Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently suggested the training could be accelerated. He also said Washington was seeking a long-term "strategic partnership" with Kabul. But Armitage insisted that there were no plans for permanent American military bases.
"From the beginning, we've said that we desire no permanent military presence in the region," he said. "At some point in time the Afghan National Army will be strong enough and will be numerous enough to be able to take care of all of the security responsibilities here."