Gates: US to remain in Afghanistan long-term in some form
US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said Monday that his country wants to build a long-term security relationship with Afghanistan and hopes to soon start discussing a strategic partnership, dpa reported.
The US does not want Afghanistan, or any other country, to be a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States, Gates said while addressing a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
"The specifics need to be negotiated. With the permission of the Afghan government, we want to have some form of presence here," Gates said, without elaborating.
"There is no interest in permanent bases, but if Afghans want it, we can contemplate the idea."
Gates was on an unannounced two-day visit to Afghanistan on Monday where he met with NATO officials and the Afghan president. This was his 13th visit to the country.
The defence secretary repeated US President Barack Obama's apology for the death of nine Afghan boys in a NATO airstrike last week. He said it was a "setback for relationship."
"It breaks our heart. My personal apologies to President Karzai and the Afghan people. Not only is their loss a tragedy for their families, it is a setback for our relationship with the Afghan people," Gates said.
Karzai said during the press conference he respected and accepted the apology, adding civilian casualties have been a major source of grief for Afghans and that they want it to stop.
"They don't want to lose their loved ones whether in crossfire or an operation. This is the plea of the Afghan people," Karzai said.
Civilian casualties have been a major source of contention between the Afghan government and international forces, primarily US forces.
On Sunday, Karzai harshly criticized US forces for causing civilian casualties during their operations, rejecting an apology from US General David Petraeus as "not enough" and "no longer acceptable."
The New York Times said Gates was in Afghanistan to begin assessments to determine the number of US troops that could be withdrawn from the country in July.
Gates said in the press conference that the US is well-positioned to begin withdrawing troops in summer.
"We are closer than ever to build a strong Afghan security force who will start taking responsibility of security. We will be well- positioned to draw down in a small number from this summer," Gates told reporters.
Nearly 100,000 US soldiers are currently in Afghanistan. The US and NATO had planned to start troop reductions from mid-2011.
Addressing the media after meeting with Karzai, Gates said al- Qaeda has lost some regional standing due to recent uprisings in the Middle East and Arab countries.
"Their narrative that extreme violence is essential has been disappointed by the people," Gates said.
The US has prepared a number of options regarding capabilities for "a military action against Libya," he said. But any army action should be part of international sanctions, he added.