Top US defence official visits Afghanistan

The Pentagon visit takes place as the first of the 30,000 US reinforcements are starting to deploy to the 8-year-old war.

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KABUL // The Pentagon's top military officer visited Afghanistan on Monday just as the first of the 30,000 US reinforcements are starting to deploy to the 8-year-old war. Adm Mike Mullen arrived in the Afghan capital of Kabul for a series of meetings with the government of President Hamid Karzai, a spokesman for the international coalition force said. Since President Barack Obama announced his new war strategy, 16,000 troops have received their orders for Afghanistan, the joint chiefs of staff chairman said last week.

The first to be deployed - a battalion of Marines - are to arrive in southern Afghanistan this week. Tens of thousands of tons of construction materials, winter gear and other equipment also are in the pipeline. Col Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the international force, said US troops will begin arriving over the next week or so. "By the middle of summer, you should see most of the forces that have been pledged arrive here in Afghanistan," Mr Shanks said, adding the fresh troops would be sent mainly to the south without disclosing exact locations. Mr Obama ordered the troop surge to try to curb the burgeoning Taliban insurgency as the bloodiest year of the Afghan war draws to a close.

Underscoring the security crisis, Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior announced that 16 Afghan National Police were killed Monday in two separate attacks - one in northern Baghlan province and the other in the southern city of Lashkar Gah. Mr Mullen is one of a host of top military officials and world leaders to visit the country following the announcement of the new US strategy for Afghanistan, which includes a plan to begin pulling troops out in July 2011.

All the visitors have sought to reassure Afghan officials that international forces would not abandon the nation in 18 months. In a visit to the war zone last week, US defence secretary Robert Gates told Afghanistan's senior military officials that while the US looks forward to the day when the Afghans can take control of their country, the United States would have a large number of forces in Afghanistan for some time beyond July 2011. "This is a relationship forged in blood," he said. "We will see it to the end."

On Sunday, British prime minister Gordon Brown worked to smooth relations with Mr Karzai and renew Britain's commitment to the war despite its unpopularity back home. Mr Brown has sharply criticised the Afghan leader, saying that Britain would not continue to risk the lives of its soldiers to defend a corrupt government. Mr Brown was less confrontational when he visited Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan where most British troops are deployed. The change in tone appears to reflect the fact that the two governments must work in concert in coming months if they are to achieve their goals of restoring stability in the south, training Afghan security forces and enabling international forces to eventually leave.

* AP