BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan Vice President Dick Cheney dismissed fears that Afghanistan could slide into a failed state, telling troops on Thursday that the U.S. and NATO allies will not allow resurgent extremists to bully their way back into power.
More than 8,000 people died in Afghanistan last year, making it the most violent year since 2001 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime after the Sept. 11 attacks. Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have regrouped, especially in the south, and the job of coordinating aid and NATO troops from scores of nations has proved daunting.
"The Afghan people have no desire to be pulled back into the dark ages," Cheney said at Bagram Air Base during an unannounced trip to Afghanistan. "They're trusting America to stand by them in this fight, and that trust is being repaid every day. Having liberated this country, the United States and our coalition partners have no intention of allowing extremists to shoot their way back into power."
Cheney said NATO members need to step up military assistance for Afghanistan as it struggles to rebound from years of tyranny and war. That will be at the top of the agenda when leaders of the 26 nations in NATO hold a summit in Romania early next month.
NATO's force is about 43,000-strong, but NATO commanders seek more combat troops for areas in southern Afghanistan where Taliban and al-Qaida fighters are the most active.
All 26 NATO nations have soldiers in Afghanistan, but the refusal of European allies to send more combat troops is forcing an already stretched U.S. military to fill the gap. The U.S. contributes one-third of the NATO force.
The Pentagon says that by late summer, there will be about 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan up from about 28,000 now. The bulk of the increase reflects the 3,200 additional Marines President Bush recently sent to Afghanistan.
U.S. officials say Washington had to act because its European allies weren't filling the shortfall in combat units. An independent study group co-chaired by retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones and former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering concluded early this year that Afghanistan is at risk and that the war is being fought with too few military forces and insufficient economic aid.
"America will ask our NATO allies for an even stronger commitment for the future," Cheney said earlier in Kabul, standing alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai at his heavily guarded presidential palace.
Troops from Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States have done the majority of the fighting against Taliban militants. France, Spain, Germany and Italy are stationed in more peaceful parts of the country. Canada, which has 2,500 troops in Kandahar province, recently threatened to end its combat role unless other NATO countries provide an additional 1,000 troops to help the anti-Taliban effort there.
Some European governments have voters who harbor misgivings about Bush's war on terrorist groups and don't want their troops on the front lines. Some also have troop commitments in Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East and are under pressure to do more for peacekeeping in Darfur.
Cheney also said that neighboring Pakistan, like other sovereign nations, has an obligation to ensure that its territory is not a sanctuary for insurgents and terrorists. They are moving back and forth across the Afghan-Pakistani border, using the mountainous region as a safe place to plot attacks.
He said he had no reason to doubt the commitment of newly elected Pakistani leaders in dealing with problems emerging from the border area partly because the Pakistan government itself was a target for al-Qaida and extremists.
"You've seen a number of devastating attacks against the people and government of Pakistan, including of course the tragic assassination of former Prime Minister (Benazir) Bhutto," Cheney said. "So they have as big a stake as anyone else in dealing with the threat."
Cheney flew from Oman to the Afghan capital, then took a helicopter to the dusty presidential compound where he greeted Karzai with a hearty handshake. The two strolled down a deep red carpet, reviewing troops before heading inside for an hour-long, one-on-one discussion.
Vice presidential advisers said Cheney wanted to talk to Karzai about the problems in the south, push him to take steps to extend Afghanistan's governance beyond Kabul and stress the need for successful elections next year. Cheney also wanted to address ways the Afghan government could curb corruption and deal with the rising production of poppies, which are used to make narcotic drugs that fund insurgent operations.
At a news conference later, Karzai highlighted progress, saying that just a few years ago, his country, which is about the size of Texas, lacked paved roads.
"Now we have more than 3,000 kilometers of paved highways and other roads," he said. "Go to schools, go to hospitals, go to lots of other reconstruction activities in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. ... So thanks to you, the international community, for having given us all of that. Please continue."
After his talks with Karzai, the vice president took a 20-minute helicopter ride to the massive Bagram Air Base, ringed by rugged, barren terrain that's starting to turn green. Because of harsh winters, spring is the start of the fighting season here.
Before returning to Oman to continue his 10-day trip in the Mideast, Cheney enjoyed a prime rib dinner. Troops at the base said it was not a special menu for the vice president, but that it was a special day: the Afghan new year.