Cheney in Afghanistan to back government

(AP) - Vice President Dick Cheney met with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday to discuss ways the country's fragile government can counter rising threats from al-Qaida and Taliban militants.

Cheney flew to the Afghan capital from Oman and took a helicopter straight to the presidential palace where he greeted Karzai with a hearty handshake. The two strolled down a red carpet together, reviewing troops before heading inside for their talks.

Reporters were not allowed to disclose Cheney's visit until he had arrived safely.

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 hardline Taliban regime after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding in rugged, mountainous areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

"The president asked the vice president to meet with President Karzai in advance of the NATO summit to discuss progress in a democratic Afghanistan as well as the work that lies ahead, especially in the south," said Cheney spokeswoman Lea Ann McBride.

She said Cheney would talk with Karzai about ways the U.S. would continue to help Afghanistan become a more prosperous, stable nation. The vice president also is expected to meet with troops stationed in Afghanistan.

It is Cheney's fourth vice presidential trip to Afghanistan. Cheney, who is on a 10-day trip to the Middle East, visited Iraq earlier this week.

Problems in Afghanistan will be a key topic at the NATO summit early next month in Romania. NATO's force is about 43,000-strong, but commanders have asked for more combat troops for areas in southern Afghanistan where the insurgency is the most active.

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. Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said he expected a pledge for troops before or during the summit April 2-4 in Bucharest, Romania.

The U.S. contributes one-third of the NATO force, and also has about 12,000 other U.S. troops operating independently from NATO. 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 is the 3,200 Marines President Bush has agreed to send. About 2,300 troops of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, have begun arriving at their new base in Kandahar, the Taliban's former power base.

Cheney's first vice presidential trip to Afghanistan was in December 2004. In December 2005 and February 2007, Cheney visited Afghanistan as well as neighboring Pakistan.

An official who briefed reporters during the trip from Oman to Afghanistan said Cheney wanted to compare notes with Karzai to make the upcoming NATO summit a success. The U.S. wants NATO members to issue a strong statement at the summit pledging a long-term commitment to help Afghanistan become a stable nation and vowing to support the Afghans on the military front as well as in efforts to rebuild the nation.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity as a condition of discussing the private meeting agenda, said Cheney and Karzai would discuss the overall situation in Afghanistan, but particularly the violence plaguing the southern part of the country. The official said the vice president would urge Karzai to continue to work with Pakistan in the wake of the recent elections there and to and stay focused on problems of extremists and terrorists moving back and forth across the mountainous border separating the two countries.

The vice president also planned to discuss steps the U.S. thinks the Afghan government needs to take to extend its governance beyond Kabul and to conduct successful elections next year, the official said, as well as addressing ways the Afghan government can curb corruption and deal with rising production of the poppy crop used to make narcotic drugs that help fund insurgent operations

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