Karzai Urges Shift in Strategy

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 20 -- President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday questioned the need for further international military operations within Afghanistan, while the top U.S. military commander here predicted more fighting in the weeks ahead as Taliban guerrillas continue to mount attacks and U.S.-led forces respond.

Karzai, speaking at a news conference two days after landmark parliamentary elections were held with minimal disruption, called instead for a "stronger political approach," focused on shutting down guerrilla training camps and financial support outside the country.

Although he declined to specify any locations of foreign support, aides to Karzai have previously expressed his concern that neighboring Pakistan is serving as a haven for fighters linked to the ousted Taliban regime.

The president repeated past demands that foreign troops stop searching Afghan homes without authorization from his government. He also suggested that airstrikes, which are still sporadically employed by the U.S. military and have resulted in some civilian casualties, were not effective. "The nature of the war on terrorism has changed now," Karzai said. "We do not think there is a serious terrorist challenge emanating from Afghanistan."

Among the reasons he listed was a growing sense among Afghans that they are in control of their political destiny with the adoption of a constitution in January 2004, the country's first democratic presidential election last October, and the first parliamentary elections in three decades, held Sunday.

Taliban fighters failed to follow through on a vow to derail the latest voting. However, the Taliban militia has recently reasserted itself. Hundreds of civilians, government workers, Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed in bombings and ambushes in the south and east.

U.S. and Afghan forces have responded with an aggressive campaign to root Taliban guerrillas out of their mountain redoubts, killing hundreds, but also losing 51 U.S. troops in combat since March.

At a separate news conference Tuesday, Army Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, who commands the approximately 17,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, suggested that pattern would continue. "We can expect more fighting in the weeks ahead, as the enemy attempts to return Afghanistan to the dark days of the past in an effort to impose the will of a very few over the democratically stated choice of many," he said, according to the Reuters news agency. "We are staying on the offensive."

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld praised Afghanistan's elections as "an amazing accomplishment." He acknowledged that lethal attacks continue, but suggested that airstrikes are a less useful tactic in the counterinsurgency campaign being waged today by U.S. and Afghan troops. "When you don't have a massed army on the ground or large puddles of enemies, then airstrikes are less effective," he said.

Eikenberry and Karzai also said the elections -- the results of which will be available next month -- were a resounding success.

Asked why turnout, estimated at 50 percent, appeared to have been so much lower than the 70 percent turnout for the presidential election, Karzai suggested that many citizens may have felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of candidates. More than 2,700 candidates competed for 249 seats in the lower house of parliament, and more than 3,000 for seats on 34 provincial councils.

The message sent by voters was "great," Karzai said. "Look at the threats, look at the bombing, look at the terrorism, and despite that, the Afghan people came out and voted."

He also dismissed concerns by rights activists that only a few dozen candidates were disqualified for links to illegal militias, though many more were former militia commanders and warlords, widely alleged to have committed war crimes.

"Our country needs stability," Karzai said, adding that "a system of participation" is important to improve national life. "Certain aspirations for us at this moment may sound like too much of a luxury. So I'm very happy with what we have."

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company