- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 4, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledged Sunday that a NATO drive into Taliban territory in Kandahar province would begin only after thorough consultations with local tribal leaders, in a bid to beef up support in the volatile south.

Mr. Karzai’s remarks to about 2,000 officials and tribal leaders in the Taliban’s spiritual heartland appeared to be part of a campaign to shore up his nationalist credentials following a speech last week in which he lashed out at what he called foreign interference in last year’s presidential election.

“There will be no military operation without your cooperation and consultation,” Mr. Karzai told the gathering in the city of Kandahar, while the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, looked on.

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Most of the 30,000 new troops promised by President Obama will be headed to Kandahar city and the surrounding province. Dates for the southward push haven’t been announced, and there is no indication that Mr. Karzai would have final say over when it begins.

However, both Afghan and U.S. commanders have stressed the need for strong civilian support, and Maj. Gen. William Mayville, deputy chief of staff for international forces, said on the plane ride back to Kabul that ultimate success in Kandahar would hinge on winning local sympathies.

“You’ve got to have the community really wanting in; otherwise, things are stalled,” Gen. Mayville said.

Gen. McChrystal did not address the Kandahar gathering but has said he foresees a series of targeted actions to steadily drive out the Taliban, rather than the D-Day-style assault launched in February against insurgents in Marjah in neighboring Helmand province.

Mark Sedwill, NATO’s current senior civilian representative, also attended the meeting as a part of his mandate to lead efforts to “find a political solution and promote stabilization” in Kandahar, spokesman Christopher Chambers said.

Mr. Karzai has deep roots in Kandahar, where his half brother is leader of the provincial assembly, but Taliban activity also has severely limited his government’s influence there.

In his remarks, Mr. Karzai lamented the dearth of Kandahar natives in the army and police. He urged local residents to send representatives to a national peace conference to be held in Kabul in early May to seek reconciliation among all factions.

“Afghanistan will stand on its own feet when people have trust in their president and cooperate with their government,” Mr. Karzai said. He repeated a call for any Taliban not linked to al Qaeda to join the reconciliation process.

After eight years in power, the central government has little control outside Kabul, especially in the south, from which the Taliban emerged as a political and military force in the 1990s. While part of that is fed by tribal rivalries, much anger is also directed at the government for the failure to bring security and basic services such as electricity and running water.

Sayed Ziarbaksh, a Kandahar official attending Sunday’s meeting, said the expected NATO offensive would be effective only if it left permanent institutions behind in the Taliban’s spiritual homeland.

“If (troops) just come and go, it may not be worthwhile,” Mr. Ziarbaksh said. “If there is no government, then there will be Taliban in those places.”

The meeting comes amid tensions with Washington over Mr. Karzai’s recent scathing accusations, which the White House described as troubling.

Mr. Karzai lashed out against the United Nations and the international community, accusing them of perpetrating a “vast fraud” in last year’s presidential polls as part of a conspiracy to deny him re-election or tarnish his victory.

A U.N.-backed watchdog threw out nearly a third of Mr. Karzai’s votes in the Aug. 20 ballot, forcing him into a runoff.

Mr. Karzai attempted to contain the damage with a telephone conversation Saturday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, but his allegations laid bare the growing frostiness in relations as the United States and NATO ramp up troop levels to try to turn back the Taliban.

The Obama administration has been far more critical of Mr. Karzai’s stewardship than former President George W. Bush, especially Mr. Karzai’s failure to curb corruption and improve governance.

Partly in response, Mr. Karzai this month gave an anti-corruption body powers to prosecute cases in court.

His attorney general also opened an investigation into the former head of the Ministry of Hajj and Mosque, Sediq Chakari, who has been implicated in the disappearance of travel funds for last year’s annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Ministry of Interior spokesman Zemeri Bashary said Sunday that the ministry formally asked Interpol less than a week ago to arrest Mr. Chakari, who is living abroad.

Meanwhile, three Afghan police were killed and three wounded Sunday when their vehicle came under attack near Helmand’s capital of Lashkar Gah.

That followed German troops’ mistaken killing Friday night of six Afghan soldiers.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Mr. Karzai on Saturday to express her condolences over the deaths, while Mr. Karzai expressed sympathy for the deaths of three German soldiers in fighting the same day.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Germany’s defense minister, told journalists on Sunday that his office and the office of the German prosecutor general will investigate the friendly-fire deaths Friday night near the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. NATO’s ISAF and the Afghan Defense Ministry have also launched investigations.

Mr. Guttenberg expressed his sympathy to the families and relatives of the Afghan soldiers killed by German soldiers. The German troops were rushing to the scene of their comrades fighting after nightfall and mistook them for insurgents, the military said.

German forces were criticized sharply in September when they ordered an airstrike on two tanker trucks that had been captured by the Taliban, killing up to 142 people.

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