, KABUL, Aug 5 – The new NATO chief on Wednesday made his maiden visit to Afghanistan to assess first-hand the fight against an escalating Taliban-led insurgency clouding nationwide elections scheduled in two weeks.
Former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen took charge of the 28-nation NATO on Monday, pledging to make Afghanistan the priority and prevent the war-torn country from once again becoming a hub of international terrorism.
"He is here," a press officer for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Lieutenant Robert Carr, told AFP. "He is touring the facilities and he is meeting with top officials."
Afghan government officials had said Rasmussen was expected in Kabul on Wednesday but would not give details for security reasons.
The new secretary general was due to meet President Hamid Karzai, who is seeking a second term in office on August 20, one official said.
With campaigning for the presidential and provincial council elections in full swing, NATO forces are pressing campaigns designed to secure Taliban strongholds in a last bid to allow voting to take place in restive areas.
The extremists, who ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, have managed to orchestrate an insurgency now at a record level of attacks, straining the efforts of US and NATO-led forces that have grown to number more than 100,000.
There are concerns insurgent violence will overshadow the elections, deter Afghans from going out to vote and undermine the credibility of a poll that is a test of an internationally-funded drive to install democracy.
A roadside bomb ripped through a civilian vehicle in the eastern province of Nangarhar on Wednesday, killing six men en route to meet local government authorities, an official said.
There was no claim of responsibility but the blast was similar to hundreds blamed on Taliban fighters.
The election is Afghanistan’s second-ever democratic poll and a milestone on a road to democracy chosen for Afghanistan after the extremist Taliban regime were driven from government for sheltering Al-Qaeda.
The NATO chief was scheduled on Thursday to meet three other presidential frontrunners — former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and deputy speaker Mirwais Yasini, ISAF announced.
Although Karzai leads a field of 41 people standing for the top job, he has been widely criticised for avoiding the public campaign trail and instead carving out alliances with powerful but often corrupt political kingmakers.
Taking office on Monday, Rasmussen said NATO forces would help prevent Afghanistan from "becoming again a grand central station of international terrorism."
There are around 64,500 troops from 42 countries serving in ISAF, playing a key role alongside a US-led coalition in helping stabilise a country suffering from three decades of war, resurgent Islamists, poverty and corruption.
Rasmussen, who has a four-year mandate, said the long-term goal was to "move forward concretely and visibly with transferring lead security responsibility in Afghanistan to the Afghans."
"I believe during my term Afghans must take over lead responsibility for security in most of their country," he said.
But any suggestion that such a strategy amounted to cut and run was pure propaganda, he added.
"Let me be clear. NATO must and will be there in support. Let no Taliban propaganda try to sell my message as a run for (the) exit. It is not," he said.
"We will support the Afghan people as long as it takes."