NEW YORK - As President Hamid Karzai prepares for a visit to the United States, a leading American newspaper has come out strongly against equipping Afghanistan’s defence forces with advanced aircraft and other military equipment as part of a modernisation programme that the Afghan leader is requesting.

“Mr. Karzai, a deeply flawed leader who is expected to leave office next year, has his own agenda, which includes requests for updated American aircraft, surveillance equipment and longer-range artillery to modernise his army,” The New York Times said in an editorial: Choices on Afghanistan.

“Those requests cannot be taken seriously when Afghan security forces are increasingly murdering Americans and the Afghan government remains so profoundly corrupt,” the Times said.

It said, “President Obama will soon make critical choices on Afghanistan, including how fast to withdraw 66,000 American troops and whether to keep a small residual force there once the Nato combat mission concludes at the end of 2014. His talks with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, this week will be an important marker in that process.

“A lot has happened since the two men met in Kabul last May and signed a strategic partnership agreement. Some developments, like signs of an incipient peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government, are promising. But many are not. The Afghan Army and police forces have taken responsibility for securing larger and larger swaths of the country, but the Pentagon has admitted that only 1 of 23 Nato-trained brigades can operate without American assistance. The recent alarming rise in fatal attacks by Afghan forces on their American military mentors has crushed whatever was left of America’s appetite for the costly conflict.

“Ideally, the 66,000 American troops would already be leaving, and all of them would be out as soon as safely possible; by our estimate, that would be the end of this year. The war that started after Sept. 11, 2001, would be over and securing the country would be up to Afghanistan’s 350,000-member security force, including the army and police, which the United States has spent $39 billion to train and equip over a decade.

“But there is a conflict between the ideal and the political reality. Mr. Obama has yet to decide how fast he will withdraw the remaining troops, and the longer he delays, the more he enables military commanders who inevitably want to keep the maximum number of troops in Afghanistan for the maximum amount of time.

“Another matter of concern is that Mr. Obama is seriously considering keeping a residual military force for an indefinite period after 2014. He needs to think carefully about what its mission would be and make his case to the public. Gen. John Allen, the commander in Afghanistan, had provided the White House with options for an enduring presence that went as high as 20,000 troops. That was an alarmingly big number, but fortunately now seems to be a nonstarter. American officials on Saturday said the administration is considering a much smaller force of 3,000 to 9,000.

“If Mr. Obama cannot find a way to go to zero troops, he should approve only the minimum number needed, of mostly Special Operations commandos, to hunt down insurgents and serve as a deterrent against the Taliban retaking Kabul and Al Qaeda re-establishing a safe haven in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama will want to discuss all these issues with Mr. Karzai. The United States cannot go forward if Afghanistan opposes a residual force or puts undue restrictions on those troops.”

According to the State Department, a full range of issues would come up for discussion during President Karzai’s meetings between January 8 to 11 and is likely to include issues of security, issues of political transition, the ongoing economic support, the Silk Road strategy and regional integration strategy.

On the security side, media reports suggest the sticking point between the two sides has been immunity for US forces that stay in Afghanistan after official Nato-set deadline for withdrawal of international forces, which have fought al-Qaeda terrorists and a Taliban insurgency in much of the last decade.

US military commander in Afghanistan Gen. Allen has offered three options for post-2014 troops presence, ranging from 6000 to 20,000.

But reports, citing American officials, say the White House is considering between a smaller 3000 to 9000 troops deployment in the country, if an agreement is reached between the two sides.

The background to this week’s meetings in Washington includes some hopeful developments like Pakistan-assisted but Afghan-led reconciliation process. But there are many worrisome signs as well.

Meanwhile, a report in The Washington Post said Karzai is bringing with him a litany of complaints including accusations that the United States has fomented corruption in Afghanistan and continues to violate the country’s sovereignty.

“The prospect of a diminished US presence in Afghanistan hasn’t dulled the tone of Karzai’s critique, even though he claims to want a long-term American security footprint here. That footprint would be welcomed, his advisers say, but only if it is accompanied by concessions on a number of seemingly intractable issues”.

Karzai’s demands from the US include an end to approval of contracts with warlords, who according to his spokesman, use the money for their own gains. He also wants a full handover of the Parwan military prison. According the Kabul-datelined report, Karzai also wants a stronger Afghan air force, an end to US military operations in villages and a guarantee that his country will be protected from cross-border militant incursions.

“As Karzai presses those demands, he and his advisers have extended their critique to the larger legacy in Afghanistan of the United States and Nato, which they say have failed to deliver security, despite billions spent,” the Post noted.

During the visit, the US officials are expected to press Karzai on his commitment to improving transparency and governance both conditions attached to $16 billion in aid approved last year at an international donors conference in Tokyo.