By Michael Birnbaum
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 9:39 AM
MUNICH - Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday called for further reductions in the American presence in his country, saying that the teams led by the United States and its allies that work to bolster local governments were undermining his government in Kabul.
Karzai made his remarks in a speech delivered at a defense conference in Munich. He also said that he would like to reconcile members of the Taliban "as soon as possible," so long as they are not part of al-Qaeda and are willing to swear allegiance to the Afghan constitution.
"The Taliban are part of the Afghan society," Karzai said.
U.S. officials present at the conference minimized differences between them and Karzai, and struck a guardedly optimistic tone about the direction of the country - a change from previous years that were mostly filled with warnings about a deteriorating situation.
They said they expected the U.S. presence in Afghanistan to last even after the military has withdrawn in 2014, but said that the country's security forces were increasingly bearing the burden of work.
"It's going to be a very tough year ahead," said Admiral James G. Stavridis, NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. "These gains are fragile, they are reversible, but in my mind they are indicative of very real progress. I am cautiously optimistic that we are on a good track."
Karzai said he would announce his plans for the Afghan takeover of security forces from international hands March 21, the Afghan New Year. But he spent much of his speech reiterating his previous criticisms of Western aid and involvement that bypassed the central government in Kabul, including private security forces and private non-governmental organizations.
"The Afghan people get confused, they don't know who the authority is," Karzai said. He called aid that wasn't routed through Kabul "an impediment to the growth of the Afghan capability of government and the delivery of services."
Karzai included NATO-led provincial reconstruction teams that work to build local governments among the programs he wanted to see eliminated, something that Stavridis said he disagreed with in the short-term, though he said that he supported a diminished role "over time."