WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he was surprised by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's remark that it would be 15 to 20 years before his country could afford the new, larger security force in Afghanistan without international help.
Gates is currently visiting Afghanistan, meeting with Karzai and U.S. commanders and troops in the country.
"To be honest, it did surprise me a little bit," Gates said of Karzai's remarks in an interview from Afghanistan on NBC's "Today" show.
"But the reality is: as their forces expand and ours begin to draw down, the costs for us will decline,” he said. “And the truth of the matter is [the Afghans] will begin to assume a greater proportion of this. This is all sort of a gradual transfer, if you will, that will take place over time."
A key element of the U.S. and NATO strategy in Afghanistan is helping to develop and train Afghan military and police forces so they can protect their own country.
During a joint news conference with Gates in Kabul on December 8, Karzai was asked how the Afghan president would be able to sustain the cost of such a large national security force.
"For a number of years, maybe for another 15 to 20 years, Afghanistan would not be able to sustain a force of that nature and capability with its own resources," Karzai said.
"We hope that the international community, in particular the United States as our first ally, would help Afghanistan reach the ability in terms of its economic ability as well as eventually to sustain the force that would serve Afghanistan with the right numbers and the right equipment," Karzai added.
Asked whether he, Karzai, and President Barack Obama are all agreed that U.S. forces can start withdrawing from Afghanistan in about a year and a half, Gates replied: "President Karzai has welcomed the surge and he seems to be quite comfortable with the timeline that we're talking about in terms of the beginning the process of a withdrawal in July 2011."
"They're clearly on notice that they'll need to accelerate their recruitment and training of their troops and get them into the field and I think he has confidence that they can do their part," Gates said.