Afghan Leader Demands Plan for Foreign Forces' Departure

(By Allauddin Khan -- Associated Press)
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 27, 2008

KABUL, Nov. 26 -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sharply criticized the United States and NATO, demanding a timeline for the withdrawal of foreign forces.

Karzai's comments came late Tuesday in a speech to a U.N. Security Council delegation visiting Kabul, the capital, this week. He accused the international community of failing "to fight the Taliban properly" since the U.S.-led war in the country began in 2001.

"This war has gone on for seven years. The Afghans don't understand anymore how come a little force like the Taliban can continue to exist, can continue to flourish, can continue to launch attacks with 40 countries in Afghanistan, with entire NATO force in Afghanistan, with the entire international community behind them," Karzai said. "Still we are not able to defeat the Taliban."

Karzai spoke days after U.S. President-elect Barack Obama promised to put greater emphasis on security in Afghanistan next year. The two men talked for the first time by phone last week.

Karzai, whose five-year term ends next year, has become increasingly critical of the international community. He has complained bitterly about mounting civilian casualties caused by U.S.-led airstrikes in Afghanistan and has called for a halt to NATO raids on Afghan villages. In recent weeks, he has become more forceful in his calls for negotiations with the Taliban, saying he would guarantee safe passage to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar if he agreed to talks with the government.

"If there is no deadline, we have the right to find another solution for peace and security, which is negotiations," Karzai said.

Karzai, who was elected in 2004 after serving as interim president following the fall of the Taliban in 2002, is facing stiff political competition ahead of the presidential election set for September. With insurgents and criminal groups in control of parts of the country, his political foes have seized on the failure to effectively counter the threat, with some calling for an earlier election.

According to the constitution, the presidential election must be held 30 to 60 days before the end of the incumbent's term. Karzai's term ends April 22. But the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan decided this year to delay the vote by six months because harsh winter weather and a lack of security would make it difficult to organize polls in remote provinces.

Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president and current leader of the country's largest opposition party, said this week that a traditional loya jirga meeting of Afghan leaders should be held to decide whether to have the election earlier. Rabbani, who was forced to flee Kabul after the Taliban took power in 1996, said postponing the election until September would only delay an inevitable battle over the vote's legitimacy. Although concerns about security during the election are significant, the risk of a deeper conflict looms large if the government fails to heed constitutional requirements, he said.

"There is no doubt that we are concerned about security, and there are some challenges. But we are also concerned because where is the proof that the country will be more secure in September than in May?" Rabbani said. "The current government doesn't have any role in guaranteeing security. I'm concerned that their only role is to create insecurity."

Karzai said at a news conference Wednesday that questions about the timing of the election should be resolved by a constitutional commission. "I'm ready -- whether it's in January, February or March," he added.

Voter registration for the election began last month, and millions are expected to add their names to the rolls in coming weeks. The election commission has arranged for registration to take place in four phases because of the security concerns, with registration first in more peaceful areas, then in provinces with the highest levels of violence.

About 2.1 million voters have registered in 24 of the country's 34 provinces, according to the election commission. Zekria Barakzai, chief spokesman for the commission, said the final two phases of registration would begin in the remaining provinces in the east and south in December and January.

Barakzai said the commission is proceeding despite a call from some Afghan officials for an earlier election. He said that security remains an overall concern in the south and the east, where the Taliban insurgency has been strongest, but that talks with local tribal elders, community leaders and authorities have produced a strong registration turnout.

"We're receiving a lot of encouraging signs from these areas, and we hope it will continue, though security challenges lie ahead," Barakzai said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company