(IT's time to come home! Editor note)
KABUL- President Hamid Karzai said on Saturday that the United States must reduce the visibility and intensity of its military operations in Afghanistan and end the increased U.S. Special Operations forces night raids that aggravate Afghans and could exacerbate the Taliban insurgency.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Karzai said that he wanted American troops off the roads and out of Afghan homes and that the long-term presence of so many foreign soldiers would only worsen the war. His comments placed him at odds with U.S. commander Gen. David H. Petraeus, who has made capture-and-kill missions a central component of his counterinsurgency strategy, and who claims the 30,000 new troops have made substantial progress in beating back the insurgency.
"The time has come to reduce military operations," Karzai said. "The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life."
Karzai's comments come as American officials are playing down the importance of July 2011 - the date President Obama set to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan - in favor of a combat mission ending in 2014. The Afghan president has placed himself squarely in favor of a lighter military footprint as the administration reviews the progress of the Afghan war and debate intensifies about the pace of the withdrawal. Karzai says his troops are ready to take more responsibility for their own security.
In an hour-long interview with Post reporters and editors in his office in Kabul, Karzai said he was speaking out not to criticize the United States but in the belief that candor could improve what he called a "grudging" relationship between the countries. He described his own deep skepticism with American policy in Afghanistan - from last year's presidential election, which he said was manipulated by U.S. officials, to his conviction that government corruption has been caused by billions of American dollars funneled to unaccountable contractors. And he said Afghans have lost patience with the presence of American soldiers in their homes and armored vehicles on their roads.
Karzai has long been publicly critical of civilian casualties at the hands of U.S. and NATO troops and has repeatedly called for curtailing night raids into Afghan homes. Under Petraeus and his predecessor, such raids by U.S. Special Operations troops have increased sharply, to about 200 a month, or six times the number being carried out 18 months ago, said a senior NATO military official, who requested anonymity so that he could speak candidly about the situation. These operations capture or kill their target 50 to 60 percent of the time, the official said.
To American commanders, the nighttime strike missions are a crucial weapon to capture Taliban commanders, disrupt bomb-making networks and weaken the 30,000-man insurgency in Afghanistan. In the past three months, U.S. Special Operations troops have killed or captured 368 insurgent leaders. On each mission, Afghan commandos accompany U.S. troops and Afghan officers work with the Special Operations command at Bagram Airfield to choose targets, military officials said.
"We understand President Karzai's concerns, but we would not be as far along as we are pressuring the network had it not been for these very precision operations we do at night," the NATO military official said. "I don't see any near-term alternative to this kind of operation."
But Karzai was emphatic that U.S. troops must cease such operations, which he said violate the sanctity of Afghan homes and incite more people to join the insurgency. A senior Afghan official said that Karzai has repeatedly criticized the raids in meetings with Petraeus and that he is seeking veto power over the operations. The Afghan government does not have the type of legal arrangement that the Iraqi government has with U.S. forces to approve particular military operations.
"The raids are a problem always. They were a problem then, they are a problem now. They have to go away," Karzai said. "The Afghan people don't like these raids, if there is any raid it has to be done by the Afghan government within the Afghan laws. This is a continuing disagreement between us."
Karzai, who said during his inaugural speech last year that he would like to have full Afghan security control by 2014, said that the U.S. military "should and could" draw down its forces next year. He acknowledged that an abrupt withdrawal would be dangerous, but said that American soldiers should confine themselves more to their bases and limit themselves to necessary operations along the Pakistani border. He said he wanted the U.S. government to apply more pressure on Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan while focusing on development projects and civilian assistance in Afghanistan.
Although he did not say how many U.S. troops he would prefer in Afghanistan, Karzai said that at current levels "you cannot sustain that." There are about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"It's not desirable for the Afghan people either to have 100,000 or more foreign troops going around the country endlessly," he said.
"We'd like to have a long-term relationship with America, a substantial relationship with America, that's what the Afghan people want. But we'd like the Afghan countryside - villages, homes, towns - not to be so overwhelmed with the military presence. Life has to be seen [as] more normal," he added.
Insurgents have stepped up their attacks this year to record levels. In the past two days, a car bomb exploded in Kabul and fighters attacked a NATO observation post at the Jalalabad airport in eastern Afghanistan. Saturday's early morning airport assault sparked a lengthy gun battle that left six insurgents dead, including two wearing explosive vests.
As the American military campaign has moved into high gear, U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned with the failure of the Afghan government to root out corruption and provide services to the people. Karzai deflected this criticism by arguing that much of his government's corruption problem comes from the American money that is pumped into the country outside the control of Afghan ministries and frittered away on private security firms that undermine the authority of Afghan security forces. During the Soviet occupation, he said, ministers lived in modest housing blocks and the foreign money flowed through the Afghan government.
"How come we are now so luxury-oriented today?" he asked. "The transparency of contracts is not there. Why is the U.S. government giving contracts to the sons and relatives of officials of the Afghan government? We don't do those contracts. I don't have an authority over a penny of those contracts. . . . and we've been protesting against this for years."
On the issue of negotiations with the Taliban, Karzai said that he met with Taliban leaders in "one or two" meetings about three months ago, but that the talks were in a nascent stage and amounted to little more than "the exchange of desires for peace."
He would not name the insurgents he has met but described them as "very high" level, and said that he believed that Taliban leader Mohammad Omar has been informed of the discussions.
"They feel the same way as we do here. That too many people are suffering for no reason. Their own families are suffering," he said, and it is this "national suffering they'd like to address with us."
Karzai said he was grateful to the American people for their support, particularly the flood of taxpayer money for new schools, roads, clinics and other development projects. But he questioned the Obama administration's motives. Karzai said he has become accustomed to the barrage of criticism against him and his family - allegations including graft and drug trafficking. The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, wrote in a cable last year that Karzai was not an adequate strategic partner and warned against sending troops to bolster such a troubled government.
"If a partner means a silent spectator of events conducted by Washington, if that kind of partner you seek, well, I'm not that partner," Karzai said. "Nor will be the Afghan people."
Joshua Partlow Washington Post Foreign Service