KABUL - U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates told Afghans on Tuesday Washington would not abandon them, describing a withdrawal that would begin in 2011 but be spread over several years to give Afghan troops time to train.
After months of withering U.S. criticism of Afghan President Hamid Karzai for not tackling corruption, Gates appeared to take a milder stance by accepting that the West, including the United States, shared some blame because of how they manage aid money.
Gates flew unannounced to Kabul where he met Karzai, the most senior visit by a U.S. official since President Barack Obama announced a new strategy last week, sending 30,000 extra troops but pledging to begin withdrawing them in 18 months.
In Washington, the Pentagon announced orders for the first wave of 16,000 extra troops, starting by nearly doubling the U.S. Marine Corps contingent in the restive south.
The announcement that Obama would start pulling out troops in 2011 has alarmed some Afghans, who fear Taliban insurgents will wait them out. Gates stressed there would be no quick pullout.
As president Obama and I have said repeatedly, our government will not again turn our back on this country or the region, Gates told a news conference with Karzai.
We will fight by your side until the Afghan forces are large enough and strong enough to secure the nation on their own.
The withdrawal to begin in July 2011 will be gradual and conditions-based and could take years, he said. Whether it's three years or two years or four years remains to be seen.
Aides later said he was not referring to a total pullout in that time but to a gradual change in the U.S. military's role.
Karzai repeated a pledge that Afghan security forces would take over security in the entire country within five years. Gates said he hoped that timeline could be met or even beaten.
The increased U.S. presence also alarms some Afghans who fear more fighting and more civilian casualties.
Around the time Gates was speaking in Kabul, Afghan troops in the east opened fire on villagers demonstrating against a raid in which they said NATO troops had killed 13 civilians.
The acting head of the provincial council said three protesters were shot, two of them killed.
NATO denied killing civilians in the raid that led to the protest. Karzai's office said six civilians had died in the raid.
SOFTER STANCE SIGNALLED ON CORRUPTION
Karzai has endured mounting criticism from Washington and other Western backers that his government is corrupt -- particularly since his re-election in a poll tainted by fraud.
In one of the biggest corruption cases in Afghanistan for years, a deputy attorney general, Enayat Kamal, said a court had handed down a four-year sentence against Kabul Mayor Abdul Ahad Sayebi for corruption. The mayor's staff said he was working normally, attending a meeting in his office.
Karzai has sounded exasperated when pressed on the issue in recent interviews, blaming Western donors in part for mismanaging multi-billion dollar aid contracts which dwarf Afghanistan's own small budget. In a shift of tone, Gates acknowledged as much.
The international community, including the United States, bore some responsibility for these problems, in no small part because of the enormous amount of money the international community has been spending here in Afghanistan, Gates said.
President Karzai has taken responsibility for dealing with the problem insofar as the Afghans are concerned. We have to do what we can, too, he said.
Gates earlier hinted at a less confrontational approach towards Karzai over the issue, telling reporters there was a tendency to paint the Afghan government with too broad a brush, and that many ministers and governors were honest and competent.
He singled out the defence and interior ministers for praise.
Karzai said he will send parliament his new cabinet line-up early next week. Ministers who have done very well, who have proven themselves, and there are quite a few of them would stay.
The U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is to give long-awaited testimony in Congress later on Tuesday, his first since issuing a dire assessment in August that said the war would be lost without new troops.
He is expected to face questions about whether the 30,000 troops he is receiving are enough, after being widely reported to have asked for 40,000 in a classified request in September.
U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry will also appear, likely to be asked whether he supports the increase, after officials leaked word he had cautioned against sending extra troops without imposing tough conditions on Karzai. McChrystal and Eikenberry say they are in agreement and both back Obama's new strategy.
Receiving extra combat power before the traditional warm weather fighting season begins was one of McChrystal's key recommendations. The first new troops -- 1,500 extra Marines -- will being arriving within days, Gates said.
In all, 8,500 more Marines will arrive in southern Afghanistan by spring 2010, nearly doubling the Marine contingent and expanding its headquarters to form a more effective fighting force in the main southern battlefields of Helmand and Kandahar.
The escalation will mean there will be 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, two-thirds of whom will have arrived since Obama took office. There are also about 40,000 troops from NATO allies.
NATO says allies have committed 7,000 extra troops since Obama's speech, although that figure does not account for nearly 5,000 Canadian and Dutch troops, most of whom are withdrawing.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Sayed Salahuddin in KABUL; Editing by Paul Tait)