KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — As the United States accelerates its training of Afghanistan’s fledgling army, the nation’s defense minister has revealed a list of high-tech weaponry he says his nation needs to defend itself.
Defense Minister Rahim Wardak told The Associated Press his requests include Apache helicopter gunships and A-10 ground attack planes, which the more than 1,000 American trainers embedded with the new Afghan army can currently call in from U.S. bases in an emergency.
He would also like U.S. forces to help create and train Afghan commando, engineer and intelligence units. Transport planes and armored vehicles would also help, Wardak said, and predicted a positive response from Washington.
“Once we improve our capabilities, I think we will be good enough to deal with any sort of internal threat,” including Islamic militants, drug smugglers and warlords, Wardak said. “We think if we take more of the burden of security it will be much more economical — in terms of money and human life — for the coalition and NATO.”
Wardak and Col. Bob Sharp, a senior official in the U.S.-led coalition, also said Washington and Kabul are considering a long-term security relationship that may include continued American bases.
The office of Lt. Gen. David Barno, the overall commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul had no comment.
Three years after a devastating air campaign drove out the former ruling Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden, the U.S. military still has 17,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. Swaths of the countryside remain under the influence of militants or warlords resisting the authority of President Hamid Karzai.
The re-emergence of the central government and the expansion of both the U.S.-trained Afghan National Army and NATO-led security forces in Afghanistan are easing the burden on the American military, which claims that Taliban-led insurgents are a waning threat.
The Afghan national army had been expected to reach its full strength of 70,000, including 43,000 ground troops, by September 2007.
Sharp, the British chief of staff of the Office of Military Cooperation, which coordinates the training, told AP that the number of Afghan battalions being trained simultaneously is going up to six in March, and that the increase will allow the force to reach full strength by the end of 2006.
With the graduation of 709 trainee soldiers and officers Sunday, the army numbers almost 20,000 soldiers, already more than a match for the factional militias they are supposed to replace under a U.N.-sponsored disarmament campaign.
Sharp and Wardak said they didn’t know when the Pentagon might decide to reduce its presence in Afghanistan, though Barno has suggested it could happen this year if Taliban fighters sign up for a planned amnesty.
“The more ANA (Afghan National Army) we get on the ground, wearing their green berets with their very high reputation, the easier we’ve found it is to stabilize the country and put an Afghan face on it,” Sharp said.
Wardak said it was too early to say how long the United States would maintain air bases in Afghanistan, which borders Iran, Pakistan and China, as well as oil-rich Central Asia. The country’s first post-Taliban parliament would also have to approve any security pacts with the United States or anyone else.
“It’s all in an ideas stage,” Wardak said.
Sharp was less circumspect.
“I don’t know the answer to this question, but I would say: Are there going to be American bases in Afghanistan permanently? It is a moderate Islamic state perfectly positioned within the region — a nice counterbalance to Iraq perhaps,” he said. “I would think there would be interest in that.”