Karzai in ‘Full Agreement' With Obama Plan

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 29, 2009

KABUL, March 28 -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that he was in "full agreement" with President Obama's newly announced strategy for Afghanistan, saying it was "exactly what the Afghan people were hoping for" and promising to "work very closely" with the United States to implement the plan.

After months of tension between the Afghan leader and officials in Washington, especially over civilian casualties caused by Western military forces, Karzai seemed pleasantly surprised by Obama's prescriptions for Afghanistan's problems, calling his plan "better than we were expecting."

Like a cross-section of Afghans interviewed Saturday, Karzai said he was especially glad that Obama explicitly endorsed two ideas Afghan officials have been stressing for several years: that the fight against Islamist terrorism must focus on militant safe havens in next-door Pakistan and that negotiations with Taliban insurgents are essential to ending the conflict in Afghanistan.

Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces have been fighting a revived Taliban insurgency for several years but making little headway, while across the border in Pakistan, other extreme Islamist groups have been making steady inroads from isolated tribal zones along the border into Pakistani society, using a mixture of violent intimidation and religious influence.

Obama's strategy calls for a major expansion of Afghan security forces and the deployment of 4,000 new U.S. troops to train them, on top of an additional 17,000 combat troops. It also proposes a boost in U.S. civilian expert assistance, more economic aid to Pakistan in return for stronger action against Islamist militant groups, and support for a better-run, more honest and responsive Afghan government as part of an overarching focus on fighting terrorism in the region.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari also praised Obama's plan, telling members of Parliament in Islamabad on Saturday that it "represents a positive change" in U.S. policy. He specifically endorsed Obama's proposal to devote large amounts of aid to development in Pakistan's lawless border region as an antidote to Islamist extremism.

Zardari said Pakistan would deal "firmly" with groups that seek to harm the government but did not elaborate. The Obama plan would toughen conditions for U.S. economic aid, making it conditional on a stepped-up commitment by Pakistan to fighting Islamist terrorism within its borders.

Afghans interviewed Saturday in markets, on university campuses and in offices in Kabul, the capital, said they were grateful that Obama had recognized the role of Pakistan as a sanctuary for Islamist terrorism yet pleased that he had endorsed the idea of seeking reconciliation with the Taliban, calling this the only sensible way to make peace with their fellow Muslims.

"The American government has finally realized the threat that comes from our neighbor. We welcome that," said Enayatullah Balegh, an influential cleric and Islamic law professor. Negotiating with the Taliban, he added, is "the only way to bring peace and stability. We cannot defeat them when we have foreigners bombing our villages and raiding our homes. Once we solve things with the Afghan fighters, the al-Qaeda forces will go away on their own."

It was not clear, however, whether Afghan and U.S. officials would agree on which adversaries to approach. Karzai said Saturday that he seeks dialogue with Afghan Taliban leaders who are not part of al-Qaeda. He said some should be removed from a U.N. blacklist, but he did not name them. Obama said there should be no talks with an "uncompromising core" of Taliban hard-liners, including the fugitive leader Mohammad Omar.

Political leaders here expressed overall appreciation for Obama's new focus on Afghanistan but said they had concerns about various details or omissions in the plan. Several said they worried that an emphasis on building democracy in their country was being subordinated to the international war against terrorism.

"I was excited that he had a new strategy but not totally satisfied with the result," said Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament. "In some ways, it seems like a continuation of President Bush's policies. Is he just going to put pressure on the Pakistani executive, or on the army and the intelligence agencies and other groups? There is a much larger picture there."

Despite Zardari's call for more cooperation with Washington against Islamist violence and extremism, U.S. and Afghan officials suspect some elements in the Pakistani security services support the Taliban insurgents and seek to dominate Afghanistan as a counterweight to India, Pakistan's longtime adversary and neighbor.

Like Balegh, some Afghans said they remained suspicious of U.S. intentions in their country and angry about reports of civilian casualties at the hands of foreign troops. They said that the greater the number of U.S. forces, the more likelihood there will be of further abuses, confrontations and mistaken deaths, and that they wished Obama had addressed that problem.

But others said Obama's new approach had generated hope for their future and that he seemed to identify with their problems far more than Bush, who they said was concerned only with fighting al-Qaeda at Afghanistan's expense.

"President Obama is a good man, and he knows how much we have suffered," said furniture salesman Mohammed Najibullah, 40. "This country needs security, jobs, investment, so many things. If Mr. Obama can follow through with all he has promised, he will have a special place in Afghan hearts."

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