WASHINGTON — U.S. soldiers have replaced Afghan guards providing security for President Hamid Karzai, reflecting growing concern for government leaders' safety in the war-torn country, the Pentagon said Monday.
The move comes after the recent assassination of an Afghan vice president, and Pentagon officials said it underscores the United States' commitment to protecting the still-wobbly transitional government.
"Clearly, it is important for that country that the outcome of the loya jirga not be negated by violence," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, referring to the recently concluded grand council to select Afghanistan's interim leaders.
Rumsfeld said that he was unaware of specific threats to Karzai but that Afghanistan remains an unstable country "where people get killed."
The assignment of U.S. soldiers, requested by Karzai, comes as the United States seeks to strike a balance between fostering Afghan self-sufficiency and ensuring that the country's first democratic steps in four decades don't falter.
The United States has gone to great lengths to restrict its role in the fledgling government, lest it create the appearance that Karzai and his Cabinet are Western puppets.
U.S. officials stressed that American forces were not involved in providing security for the loya jirga, for instance, a task that fell to an international security force led by British soldiers. Turkey is now in charge of the international peacekeepers.
The United States has also been training recruits for a new Afghan army. The first battalion of Afghan soldiers is set to complete its initial training today, Pentagon officials said.
But the risks of relying too heavily on the Karzai government to protect itself became clear earlier this month when a pair of gunmen assassinated Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir in broad daylight as he drove away from his office in Kabul, the capital.
That followed another incident in February, when Air Transportation and Tourism Minister Abdul Rahman was killed at the airport in Kabul during a melee involving a mob of Muslim pilgrims angered by flight delays.
Rumsfeld said he does not expect the United States to continue providing security for Karzai beyond the next several months.
"We look at it as a relatively short-term matter," he said, noting that the United States will also help train Afghan bodyguards for Karzai and other government officials.
On another matter, Rumsfeld said an important operative in the Al Qaeda terrorist network may be among "several handfuls" of detainees captured by Pakistani forces in the last two weeks.
Rumsfeld did not name the detainee but said he appears to have had some responsibility for financial matters in Al Qaeda. Rumsfeld stressed that the prisoner's identity and role had not been confirmed.
All told, U.S. forces and allied partners have "rounded up some 600 terrorists in Afghanistan" since the start of the war nine months ago, and hundreds more worldwide, Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld acknowledged that the United States is not certain of the whereabouts of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, or even whether he survived the war.
"He's either dead, which is fine from our standpoint," Rumsfeld said, "or he's alive and for some reason decides he does not want to live up to his reputation as enjoying going on videos and letting the world know that he's alive."