In an image released by the International Security Assistance Force, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks to troops during her visit at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on Thursday. (Liepke Plankcke/Royal Netherlands Air Force, ISAF/Associated Press)
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband flew to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan on Thursday for a firsthand look at the front lines of the NATO-led fight against Afghan insurgents.
It was a rare side-trip outside the Afghan capital by the top U.S. and British diplomats to meet with international forces facing a resurgent Taliban on what was once the movement's home ground.
Rice said the brief unannounced visit was not an attempt to show up European nations that have refused to send fighting troops to Kandahar and other southern regions.
"It's just the rationale of being able to get outside of Kabul and see one of the areas that's been very active," Rice told reporters before the diplomats' arrival. "I don't think there's any message there to anyone."
Miliband said Kandahar's "iconic status in the history and position of Afghanistan" made it a good choice for a visit outside the capital.
Kandahar was the Taliban's stronghold even after the regime was toppled by a U.S.-led assault in 2001. U.S.-led forces pushed the Taliban out of the city in 2006 and 2007, but the area is still dangerous.
Canada has threatened to remove its roughly 2,500 combat force based around Kandahar unless NATO supplies more troops and support.
"It's not an overwhelming number of forces that is being sought here," Rice said. "This is a troop contribution level that NATO can meet and should meet."
Rice and Miliband arrived in Afghanistan on their unannounced visit earlier Thursday in Kabul, carrying a joint message of support and prodding to Afghan officials as the U.S. continued a drive to recruit more NATO troops.
They were returning to Kabul later in the day to see Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other officials amid a welter of outside assessments that progress in the six-year war is stalling.
Support from Afghans needed
The two made clear they expect co-operation from the Karzai government, widely seen as weak.
"The Afghan government has responsibilities, too," Rice told reporters. "This is a two-way street, and I think everybody has to step back and concern ourselves with the Taliban."
Said Miliband: "We've got responsibilities that we're determined to live up to and obligations that we're determined to live up to and ditto for the Afghan authorities. That's something we want to follow through and at the heart of both our strategies is the belief this has to be done with the Afghan government and in fact led by the Afghan government, with our support."
In London on Wednesday, Rice said the fight in Afghanistan won't be won quickly, and U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates scolded NATO countries who haven't committed combat troops "willing to fight and die" to defeat a resurgent Taliban.
"I think that it puts a cloud over the future of the alliance if this is to endure and perhaps even get worse," the Pentagon chief said from Washington.
Gates said he's not optimistic that the influx of 3,000 more U.S. marines into Afghanistan this spring will be enough to put the NATO-led war effort back on track. He said he has sent letters to every alliance defence minister asking them to contribute more troops and equipment, but hasn't received any replies.
As he has before, Gates insisted he would continue to be "a nag on this issue" when he meets NATO defence ministers Thursday and Friday in Europe to discuss Afghanistan, but also said that only the Canadians, British, Australians, Dutch and Danes "are really out there on the line and fighting."