US Vice President Joe Biden was due to meet President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday on day two of a surprise visit to Afghanistan six months ahead of the planned start of limited troop withdrawals.
Biden will hold talks and have lunch with Karzai in Kabul after visiting a training facility for Afghan security forces. He is also expected to meet US troops serving in the country later.
Shortly after arriving late Monday, he spent nearly two hours with the commander of international troops in Afghanistan, US General David Petraeus, and US ambassador Karl Eikenberry.
Aides travelling with the vice president said his trip came at a “pivot point” for the US in Afghanistan, adding it would allow Biden to review progress towards handing responsibility for security to Afghan forces by 2014.
There are about 97,000 American troops serving in Afghanistan as part of a 140,000-strong NATO-led deployment.
But limited, conditions-based withdrawals of US troops are expected to start in July ahead of the scheduled transfer of responsibility for security to Afghan forces in four years’ time.
Coalition troops suffered their bloodiest year yet in Afghanistan in 2010 with 711 deaths, according to the iCasualties.org website.
“The visit comes at an important time. This is a pivot point in our policy,” a senior US administration official told reporters travelling with Biden.
“This is a very good moment to assess the progress we’re making toward starting the transition and the work that remains to be done.”
Asked about recent comments by Karzai accusing foreign countries of meddling in Afghanistan, the US official stressed: “We’re not here to govern Afghanistan. We’re not here to nation-build… those responsibilities belong to the Afghans.”
The visit, Biden’s first to Afghanistan since taking office, was not pre-announced due to security concerns, although Karzai was informed of the trip last week, the US official told reporters.
Biden’s trip started four days after the US announced it was sending an extra 1,400 Marines to southern Afghanistan, seen as the heart of the Taliban insurgency, in a bid to pre-empt an expected spring offensive in April or May.
The fresh troops could start arriving within weeks and would only be on the ground for a short mission of less than 90 days, US defence officials said.