Afghan officials dismiss talk of rift with U.S. after Karzai criticism

Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the allied forces in Afghanistan, says that a large operation to clear insurgent fighters from key regions just west of Kandahar is in its "final stages" and that forces have advanced more quickly than anticipated.
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 15, 2010; 6:52 PM

KABUL - Afghan government officials sought Monday to contain damaging fallout from President Hamid Karzai's criticism of the U.S. military's use of special operation raids, insisting that the critique does not signal a deepening rift between strategic partners.

The attempt to defuse the controversy came as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the raids, which are used to kill and capture Taliban commanders, a "key component" of the war.

Clinton told reporters in Washington that the Obama administration shares Karzai's concerns that the raids can be invasive for Afghan communities. But she added, "We believe that the use of intelligence-driven, precision, targeted operations against high-value insurgents and their networks is a key component of our comprehensive civilian-military operations. . . . There is no question they are having a significant impact on the insurgent leadership and the networks that they operate."

Clinton's comments signaled that the United States is not prepared to alter its tactics despite Karzai's call for an end to the raids in an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, was astonished and disappointed that Karzai aired his views publicly, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

The general reportedly did not attend a long-scheduled meeting with Karzai on Sunday, officials said, though Karzai spokesman Waheed Omer said Monday that no such meeting had been planned. At a news conference, Omer said the president's comments were not intended as a vote of no-confidence in Petraeus, but rather were a sign of a "maturing partnership" in which both sides are willing to speak frankly.

"This kind of debate has always been there, and as the relationship is maturing, there is room for substantive reflection on both sides," Omer said. He added that Afghan and NATO officials agree on most of the current NATO strategy, but that spirited debate on specific issues is "something that is going to take us to another level of partnership as we are hoping to arrive at in the near future."

The growing strife between the Karzai government and the U.S. military came as Taliban leader Mohammad Omar vowed that the insurgents would not negotiate a peace settlement, despite reports in recent weeks that some Taliban factions have begun preliminary talks.

In a statement released on the eve of the Islamic holiday Eid al-Adha, Omar called peace talks "mere propaganda" and said that the insurgents are prepared to "compel the enemy to come out from their hideouts and then crush them through tactical raids."

He also asked Muslims to offer financial support to the Taliban, imploring them to "perform your obligation of fraternity in your material wealth."

The back-and-forth between Karzai and Petraeus comes days before NATO leaders, including President Obama, are scheduled to hold a summit in Lisbon that will begin to set a timetable for transition. The process will involve turning portions of Afghanistan security control over to Afghan forces.

The summit, which Karzai is slated to attend, will also set 2014 as a deadline for the end of coalition combat operations and will showcase a long-term NATO-Afghan partnership.

In calling for an end to the night raids - which are controversial in Afghanistan because of the considerable risk of civilian casualties - Karzai struck at the heart of Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy. Petraeus believes killing top Taliban commanders in the raids is a key part of showing significant progress when the White House reviews its Afghanistan policy next month.

Omer, Karzai's spokesman, said the president's office has contacted Petraeus's staff and "clarified to NATO that the president is talking within the framework of transition."

"When he talks about reduction of military activities and talks about the reduction of military force in Afghanistan, the president makes it conditioned on the ability of the Afghan security forces to take responsibility," Omer added. "If everything in that interview is read within the overall context, we are sure that it is not much we disagree upon."

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