KABUL (Reuters) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Afghans today that 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. NATO and the Afghan Interior Ministry ordered an investigation.