By Dan De Luce
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has visited southern Afghanistan’s pivotal battleground, a day after flying into the country and publicly apologising over civilian deaths.
The US-led coalition views the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar — traditional Taliban heartlands bordering Pakistan’s tribal areas where insurgent leaders reside — as crucial to turning the tide in the long war.
Gates arrived at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand after issuing an unusual public apology over a NATO air strike last week that targeted insurgents but killed nine young boys who were out collecting firewood in eastern Afghanistan.
“This breaks our heart,” Gates told a news conference Monday at the presidential palace in Kabul, as US-backed President Hamid Karzai looked on.
“Not only is their loss a tragedy for their families, it is a setback for our relationship with the Afghan people, whose security is our chief concern.”
Karzai, who has already angrily rejected a public apology from General David Petraeus, the US commander of international troops in Afghanistan, over the incident, said he respected Gates’ words but that such incidents had to stop.
“While we take that apology with a lot of respect… I would request Secretary Gates that he take the plea of the Afghan people to Washington that these civilian casualties stop,” he said.
The episode underscored strained relations between Karzai’s government and Western allies at a delicate moment in the nearly 10-year conflict.
They are preparing to unveil plans for a gradual handover to Afghan security forces from July, with some foreign troops due to withdraw at the same time.
Afghan army and police are due to take charge of the whole country’s security by the end of 2014, allowing international combat forces to leave.
After his apology, Gates told a news conference he was optimistic about the war effort and said US and coalition forces were “well-positioned” to begin a gradual troop drawdown as planned in July.
Gates, who arrived on Monday for a two-day trip, also said a US team was due to arrive next week to begin negotiating a “security partnership” between the United States and Afghanistan for beyond 2014.
He said both countries had expressed an interest in a long-term US military role, but he said the American presence would be a “small fraction” of the current 97,000 US troops out of a 140,000-strong foreign force now deployed.
There are calls from some Afghan and US politicians for permanent US bases to be established in Afghanistan and Karzai has said talks are taking place on the issue.
But Gates said the US had “no interest” in permanent bases in Afghanistan.
He added it was “open to the possibility of having some presence here in terms of training and assistance, perhaps making use of facilities made available to us by the Afghan government for those purposes.”
US commanders are bracing for a spring offensive from the insurgents but say they have piled pressure on the Taliban during the winter lull with night raids against militant leaders and efforts to disrupt supply routes.
The Taliban and other militants have been waging a bloody insurgency against international and Afghan government forces since being ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001.