Afghans say they'll fill the gap as U.S. forces withdraw

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan army said Wednesday that it supported any U.S. plans to withdraw troops from the country and that it was ready to fill the gap.

"We welcome the decision of the U.S. people and the U.S. president regarding the withdrawal of a number of troops and support such a decision," said Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry.

The proclamation came hours before President Barack Obama was to officially announce his plan to scale back American troop strength in Afghanistan.

Even as the Defense Ministry asserted its readiness to secure the country as U.S. troops draw down, violence broke out across Afghanistan. A suicide attack killed six police officers in the southern province of Ghazni. Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on their website.

An insurgent attack also killed a NATO soldier in the south of Afghanistan, according to a statement from the International Security Assistance Force's headquarters in Kabul. The statement provided no details about the dead soldier's nationality, but mostly U.S. forces are deployed in the south.

Obama was expected to announce a gradual reduction of 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the next year, with complete withdrawal of combat forces by the end of 2014. Some 100,000 U.S. troops are in the country now.

"With pulling out some U.S. troops, which is not specified yet, we have the capacity to fill that gap in those places. We are ready to fill that gap," Azimi said.

Afghans voiced mixed reactions to Obama's drawdown plan. Some are concerned that premature withdrawal could plunge the country into factional war, as happened during the 1990s after the Soviet Union withdrew. Others want foreign troops to leave.

"The U.S. forces withdrawal plan is strengthening the enemy morale," said Mohammad Anwar, a former lawmaker from the southern province of Helmand. The foreign troops should leave the country only after the Afghan police and army are fully trained and equipped, Anwar said.

Shukria Paikan, a parliamentarian from the northern province of Kunduz, agreed that the U.S. drawdown will add to security problems.

But former Defense Minister Shahnawa Tanai disagreed.

"There might be problems in the beginning, but foreign troops' withdrawal will help in strengthening the Afghan government. But the international community should continue their support," Tanai said. "I do not agree that the government will collapse and Afghanistan will go back to the 1990s era if the troops pull out," he said.

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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