Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Up to 10,000 NATO troops for Afghan polls: secretary general

Between 8,000 and 10,000 international troops will join a NATO-led military force in Afghanistan for August elections, the outgoing NATO secretary general said on a farewell visit to Kabul Wednesday.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer steps down in August after five-and-a-half years in the job, during which he made regular trips to Afghanistan, leading NATO's deepening involvement in the insurgency-hit nation.

At a press conference after talks with President Hamid Karzai, Scheffer stressed the importance to the international community of presidential and provincial council elections on August 20.

The vote is a milestone in a Western-backed push for democracy adopted in the months after the extremist Taliban regime was removed in a US-led invasion in late 2001 for sheltering Al-Qaeda after the September 11 attacks.

With Taliban attacks at a record high, there are fears that the intensifying insurgency will affect the polls, Afghanistan's second-ever presidential vote.

"We are bringing in extra troops in Afghanistan for a protection role -- between eight and 10,000, if you want to know the numbers, will come on a temporary basis to Afghanistan," Scheffer said.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, which already numbers around 61,000 soldiers from about 40 countries, would also be protecting the observers of the election, he said.

Karzai is one of the strongest candidates in a field of 41 despite criticisms of his failure to stop the insurgency and rampant corruption in his government, with allegations of graft also touching his family.

Scheffer is due to meet on Thursday two other top contenders, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Describing a sense of nostalgia on his last visit, Scheffer said the foreign military presence had been necessary in war-scarred Afghanistan to allow reconstruction to take root.

"When I mention reconstruction and development, I do that deliberately because we have never been here, we are not here, to achieve any form of military victory," he said.

"I do not know about any conflict in the world which did not end finally with a political solution and I think and I hope... that Afghanistan will see this day as well," he said.

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