Vice President Joe Biden, right, speaks with Gen. David Petraeus...

Vice President Joe Biden, right, speaks with Gen. David Petraeus NATO's top commander in Afghanistan in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Jan. 10, 2011) Credit: AP

Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Afghanistan Monday to meet with President Hamid Karzai and assess progress toward a key objective of handing over security from foreign to Afghan forces.

The U.S. plans to begin withdrawing combat forces from Afghanistan in July but remains concerned that gains made in the nearly decade-long war could be reversible. There are also questions about the ability of Afghan security forces to take up the fight against a virulent insurgency. NATO hopes Afghan forces will assume full responsibility for security by 2014.

Tensions have surfaced between the Obama administration and Karzai, whose government is plagued by charges of corruption. U.S. officials have expressed grave concerns about how this is affecting efforts to stabilize and rebuild the country.

Just a month ago, Obama came to Afghanistan but did not meet with Karzai. The White House said that foul weather foiled plans to take Obama to the presidential palace in Kabul from the Bagram Air Field military base where he landed, and that technical difficulties prevented the two presidents from talking by secure videoconference.

Although the two leaders spoke briefly by telephone, the change of plans was seen by some in Karzai’s circle as a snub. And it was unclear whether part of the reason for Biden’s visit was to smooth things over with Karzai.

A senior U.S. official traveling with Biden tried to present a united front, saying the U.S. and Karzai are “very much on the same page” after a NATO summit in Lisbon in November and the December U.S. review of its war strategy.

The official said the visit comes at a “pivot point in our policy” with the U.S. moving from a troop surge last year to the planned start of a pullout and it would give Biden an opportunity to discuss progress toward the transition.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity and was not authorized to talk to the media.

NATO and U.S. officials insist they are making progress in quelling the insurgency. In an end-of-year review of strategy in Afghanistan, the Obama administration said the U.S. had made advances in its push against the Taliban in the south — the insurgents’ traditional stronghold — but acknowledged that “gains remain fragile and reversible.”

The Taliban has repeatedly shown its ability to regroup, despite constant offensives by the international coalition, and to carry out attacks across Afghanistan seemingly at will. Last year was the deadliest for NATO forces in the country, with more than 700 troops killed.

Afghanistan is also suffering from a lack of social services, unemployment is rife and Afghans complain that they have seen little tangible improvement in their lives since the 2001 invasion that toppled the Taliban. The insurgents, in turn, have tried to capitalize on that frustration, tapping into the discontent to win new supporters.

Karzai has accused foreign governments of meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, most notably taking issue with criticism following fraud-plagued presidential elections in 2009 and parliamentary elections last year.

The White House official said Obama has made it clear that the U.S. was not “here to govern Afghanistan, we’re not here to nation build.” He said the purpose of the mission was to help Afghans reach a stage “where they can fully assume the responsibilities of governing the country and securing the country.” “That’s exactly what (Obama’s) vision is, and it’s also President Karzai’s vision as I understand it,” he said.

American troops are the bulk of the 140,000-strong NATO force that has been battling the Taliban. 

The White House said Biden, who last visited in January 2009, met Monday night with U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He also plans to visit U.S. troops and tour an Afghan Army training center.

Biden is also reported to be heading to Islamabad this week to deliver a message that the U.S. will send more help to Pakistan, which U.S. and Afghan officials see as a key partner in routing the Taliban.

The Taliban’s top leadership is believed to be hiding somewhere along the rugged and porous Afghan-Pakistan border, but Islamabad has resisted pressure to crack down on them.

The challenges faced by NATO forces in Afghanistan were brought home by an alliance announcement Monday that airstrikes had killed three Afghan police officers and wounded three mistaken for insurgents setting up an ambush.

The incident was at least the fourth in roughly a month in which coalition troops killed civilians or friendly forces in error — lapses that have threatened to further sour Afghan attitudes toward the foreign troops.

In Kandahar, scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, a suicide car bomber struck a border police convoy Monday, killing at least two officers and a civilian, said Zalmai Ayubi, the spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor.

NATO says it is making progress in battling the Taliban with major offensives in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. An extra contingent of more than 1,000 U.S. Marines will be deployed in Helmand in what coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz said Monday was a temporary operation to take advantage of gains on the ground.

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