Pentagon Officials Press for More Afghan Aid

The United States wants to speed the pace of its rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan as the military's focus shifts away from fighting the Taliban, the Pentagon's No. 2 official said Wednesday.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, on a one-day tour of military projects in Afghanistan, said helping rebuild the country is "not only our way of saying thank you to Afghanistan, but also a way to contribute to the stability of Afghanistan."

"There's no way to go too fast," he said. "The faster the better."

Wolfowitz toured a women's hospital in Kabul that is being renovated with help from the U.S. military and Japan.

He also visited a site where U.S. military personnel are helping upgrade the main road between Kabul and Kandahar and watched troops of the new Afghan national army conduct a mock assault on an enemy compound.

Wolfowitz said the Afghan national army, which is being trained by U.S. and French officers, is one key to helping unite the country following the ouster of the ruling Taliban.

Military officials said about 1,800 Afghan soldiers have been trained so far and plans are for between 9,000 and 12,000 to be trained by the spring of 2004.

After watching the Afghan army exercise, which included live rocket and mortar fire as well as an assault by troops with automatic weapons, Wolfowitz spoke with Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim.

"We are very optimistic that in the very near future Afghanistan will make a more positive contribution," Fahim said.

"The other part of the equation is making good jobs for people who are not in the army," Wolfowitz replied.

Fahim agreed, adding, "It's very important that we forget the mentality of confrontation that will convince the people to opt for civilian life."

Wolfowitz planned to meet later with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and have dinner with U.S. troops before leaving the country.

Wolfowitz and Pentagon finance chief Dov Zakheim were in Afghanistan to asses progress of the military's rebuilding efforts. Both said they hoped to be able to fund more such projects.

The high-profile visit by the Pentagon team was meant to show the United States remains committed to rebuilding Afghanistan after helping to topple the Taliban, even as a possible war with Iraq looms and nuclear tensions with North Korea escalate.

Indeed, there are no plans to reduce the 8,000 or so U.S. troops here.

The first unit of the newly trained Afghan army has begun operations in Paktika province, an area near the Pakistan border that's a hotbed of support for the Taliban.