KABUL, Afghanistan – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld promised Afghans on Saturday the United States will soon come up with money to help them train a national army. The offer does not commit American troops to an international security force the Afghan government wanted.
Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai made the best of the plan, saying it might be better in the long run for Afghans to look after their own security. He acknowledged he wanted the British-led international security force in Kabul to be expanded to other parts of the country instead, and joined by U.S. troops, but "we didn't get that."
Rumsfeld, in a visit to the capital, said the French are offering to help the Americans train an Afghan force and the Bush administration is working to get money from Congress for that task, so that U.S. assistance can begin next month.
"There will be U.S. money that will be freed up in the immediate future to begin that process in May," the defense secretary said.
Later, in a surreal visit to Herat, he met Ismail Khan, the powerful warlord of western Afghanistan, and apparently found him receptive as well to the establishment of a national army capable of controlling or integrating the country's multitude of factions — such as Khan's own 30,000-man private force.
On a tarmac that was pitch black except for the light of a full moon, Rumsfeld stepped out of his plane to the sight of an honor guard from Khan's militia. Khan escorted him as he reviewed the lineup of mostly uniformed men, whose faces could only be made out only when news camera lights passed by them.
A small military band played a song drowned out by the engines of Rumsfeld's plane, which never shut down during his visit of about an hour.
Rumsfeld and his host climbed a reviewing stand draped in a red cloth but did not speak from the microphones, instead going into an airport building for their meeting. U.S. officials have considered him too close to Iran and resistant to the new central Afghan government.
But Khan told Rumsfeld he favored a national army and "he thought it would work," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said.
Skeptics say an Afghan force without international partners will be hard-pressed to maintain security over forces like Khan's.
Rumsfeld moved about the region in extraordinary security, including an armed MH-47 helicopter for a ground-hugging flight to Kabul from the U.S. base at Bagram and the MC-130 Special Operations troop-carrier that flew him into Herat. He finished his day in Turkmenistan for meetings Sunday.
In Kabul, Karzai did not betray any of the disappointment he might feel in the reaffirmation of U.S. plans to help train an Afghan army rather than join an expanded international security force.
"I would rather be inclined to see the United States train for Afghanistan a good strong army so that we can in the future fend for ourselves," Karzai said at news conference with Rumsfeld. "If we can get our own army, why would we ask for more foreign troops in our country?"
He said Afghans see no difference between U.S. troops and the multinational contingent in Kabul. "They see it as the same force — the one that liberated them from the evils that were here."
Karzai and other government officials have argued for months that expanding the international force from the 4,500 troops patrolling Kabul to as many as 20,000 protecting several major cities is the best way to prevent regional warlords from resuming decades of battling over territory and power.
The national Afghan army is just starting training and graduating its first class of 600. It is not expected to be a strong force of up to 100,000 men for several years — if U.S. and international promises of financial support and attention come through.
As recently as Thursday, an Afghan envoy warned the United Nations that the country risks falling back into lawlessness. U.S., British and other forces are coming under fire more frequently with the spring thaw, and the search still is on for Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts.
Rumsfeld was last in Afghanistan in December. Then, the Taliban regime had just been defeated, the interim government headed by Karzai had not yet been installed and speculation about Usama bin Laden's whereabouts was rampant.
But a reminder that stability is far from achieved came on the eve of Rumsfeld's arrival in Kabul, when a rocket hit a runway near the airport headquarters of the international peacekeeping force in the city but did not explode. His helicopter landed hours later inside the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy compound.
In Bagram, Rumsfeld told U.S. troops that Afghanistan is the "proving ground," not the final battleground, for the war on terrorism.
He told reporters U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan are fully prepared for a renewal of Al Qaeda and Taliban attacks.
"There are a lot of people saying 'Well, now that spring's coming, the Taliban and Al Qaeda will reorganize,"' Rumsfeld said. "Well if they do, we'll go after them."