Kabul, Afghanistan - Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan Saturday and said that Afghan security forces must take more responsibilities for a successful transition from U.S.-led NATO forces starting in July.
"For the upcoming transition to be successful, the Afghan government and security forces must be willing to step up and take more security responsibility for governing and defending their own territory," Gates said while talking with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The security transition is scheduled to begin in scattered locations across Afghanistan in July to pave the way toward a complete withdrawal of NATO troops by the end of 2014. Afghans will take over security in the cities of Kabul, Herat in the west, Lashkargah, the provincial capital of the restive province of Helmand, and Mehterlam, in the center of Laghman province. They will do the same for the provinces of Kabul, Panjshir and Bamiyan.
Violence has increased across Afghanistan, as the Taliban have stepped up attacks against Afghan and NATO troops. The Taliban militants launched their spring offensive last month and have succeeded in killing several key provincial security officials to sabotage the transition process.
There are fears that the early withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan will jeopardize the fragile security gains achieved in the last two years.
"The international coalition wants to be a strong partner in this effort, but ultimately it is up to the Afghan people and elected government to chart Afghanistan's destiny," Gates said. This is his twelfth and last visit to Afghanistan.
He is leaving his post later this month. President Barack Obama has nominated CIA Director Leon Panetta to replace him; the Senate has yet to confirm Panetta.
"While U.S. and coalition partners may draw down our military forces over time, we are committed to a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan," Gates said, adding that America will continue to train, equip and support the Afghan security forces.
Karzai once again emphasized that bombing of Afghan houses and night raids by NATO troops must end.
Also on Saturday, four U.S.-led NATO soldiers were killed in eastern Afghanistan, a statement issued from NATO headquarters said. It provided no details.
In a separate incident, a female suicide attacker targeted a coalition convoy in the restive eastern province of Kunar, killing one interpreter and injuring another.
"The suicide attack happened in Marawara district of Kunar province, around noon time, killing one interpreter and injuring another one," Fazlullah Wahidi, the provincial governor, told McClatchy in a telephone interview.
Kunar is a remote province in east Afghanistan, which shares a long border with the lawless tribal area of neighboring Pakistan, which is believed to be a safe haven for the Taliban and al-Qaida.
According to Wahidi, the attacker was a woman, as she was wearing a burqa, and male security forces do not search females because of cultural norms.
"We do not have female police in this province; it is a big problem," Wahidi said.
(Hashim Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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