Karzai criticism 'not helpful,' NATO envoy says, citing progress in war

Images from the front lines of the military effort in Afghanistan.
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 10:18 PM

KABUL - The top NATO civilian in Afghanistan said Wednesday that coalition forces have "regained the initiative" in the war, but he added that President Hamid Karzai's recent criticism of U.S. and NATO strategy is "not helpful" in the lead-up to a key summit in Lisbon this weekend.

Ambassador Mark Sedwill said he and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in the country, plan to report at the Lisbon conference that international forces have made significant progress against the Taliban since President Obama sent 30,000 additional U.S. troops to the region last summer.

"It's still clearly fragile, and there are significant risks and will be a long, hard campaign ahead, but we believe in 2010 we have achieved what we wished to - regaining the initiative after having lost it in the past few years," Sedwill said, addressing reporters at a morning briefing in Kabul, the Afghan capital. "We think we are in a different mode to where we were before, and the reason for that is simple: We've finally aligned our resources with the demands and objectives of the campaign. That's what the surge is all about."

But Sedwill added that Karzai's call for an end to Special Operations raids on Afghan homes to kill or capture Taliban commanders should not have been aired publicly at this critical juncture, even though Sedwill said he believes the president's comments, made in an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday, were heartfelt.

"It is not helpful to have a Washington Post headline suggesting a week before the summit that there is friction between the president of Afghanistan and the alliance, or with the ambassador or the general, over the conduct of the strategy," Sedwill said. "We have different perspectives, and it would be much better if we worked out those different perspectives in private."

Sedwill said he had a "cordial but frank" conversation with Karzai after the interview was published.

Afghan Education Minister Farooq Wardak, a Karzai confidant, said Wednesday that the president has been pushing for two years to have international troops concentrate on areas in Pakistan where terrorists take cover. "The president of Afghanistan wants our international partners in the war on terror to focus more on the root causes of terrorism, the sanctuaries of terror where it was given birth and where it must get defeated," Wardak said. "This is not only the feeling of the president, but also the feeling of the entire nation that agrees with him."

Representatives of the Afghan government and the member countries that make up NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan will attend the Lisbon conference. Sedwill said much of the gathering will be devoted to outlining plans for a handoff of primary security operations from NATO forces to Afghan troops by the end of 2014, which is emerging as the consensus time frame despite Obama's goal of beginning a U.S. drawdown next summer.

Yet he conceded that even 2014 might not mark the end of foreign troops' control in some areas. "There might still be one or two parts of the country where the transition process is ongoing, and that might last into 2015 or beyond," Sedwill said. He added that 2014 is "not an end of mission. It's not even a complete change of mission, but it is an inflection point where the balance of the mission would have shifted."

Coalition troops will begin to hand over more duties to Afghan soldiers and police beginning in the first half of 2011, Sedwill said, but he declined to say in which provinces the effort will begin.

"My strong view is that we shouldn't be announcing districts or towns where transition is happening immediately, because that will paint a bull's-eye on it and invite the Taliban to come in and try to assassinate key Afghan officials involved and knock it backward," he said. "It's critical this process feels like a one-way process, sustainable and irreversible."

He said transition efforts could take as long as two years in a given province before the Afghans take full control, and he predicted that violence caused by criminals and ethnic rivalries will still be a problem in 2014.

Asked how confident he is of the transition timeline, Sedwill said: "The phrase we used in the [Lisbon] campaign report is that it's a realistic goal but not guaranteed."

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