- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | President Barack Obama’s new envoy to Afghanistan met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday amid a downturn in U.S.-Afghan relations.

Mr. Karzai says he still has not spoken with Mr. Obama almost a month after the latter’s inauguration, a sign the Afghan president no longer enjoys the favored status he had under former President Bush.

“There is tension between us and the U.S. government on issues of civilian casualties, arrests of Afghans, nightly raids on homes and the casualties they cause,” Mr. Karzai told Al Jazeera television in an interview Friday.

Mr. Obama has said the U.S. will increase its attention to Afghanistan under his tenure as the U.S. transitions out of Iraq. But the administration is still debating how to stem the Taliban tide and tackle the endemic corruption in Mr. Karzai’s government more than seven years after the 2001 invasion.

Taliban militants have increased attacks and swept up wide areas of countryside over the last three years. The U.S. is contemplating sending up to 30,000 more American forces to back up the 33,000 already in Afghanistan.

Richard Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s new envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, met with Mr. Karzai at the heavily guarded presidential palace in central Kabul on Saturday. Neither Mr. Holbrooke nor Mr. Karzai made any public statements.

Mr. Holbrooke earlier met with Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, whose spokesman said Mr. Holbrooke reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the anti-terrorism fight, reconstruction projects and the training of Afghan forces. Mr. Holbrooke has met with Afghan officials, international military leaders and U.N. diplomats during a fact-finding trip that began Thursday.

Mr. Holbrooke has made no public comments during the Afghan leg of his trip. He previously visited Pakistan and also is to stop in India.

Mr. Karzai in recent weeks has publicly pressed the U.S. to use Afghan troops on nighttime raids in order to prevent civilian casualties. Mr. Karzai’s public criticism of the raids and the civilian deaths caused by U.S. troops has added to recent tensions in the U.S.-Afghan relationship.

The U.S. military and Afghan Defense Ministry announced Thursday that Afghan officials and troops would take greater part in U.S. missions, particularly night raids.

“There will be better coordination to minimize risk of civilian casualties and ensure Afghans search Afghan homes and conduct arrest operations,” a joint U.S.-Afghan statement said. It wasn’t clear how soon Afghans would be placed on those missions.

U.S. special-operations forces conduct targeted night raids against known militant leaders, but the operations have resulted in many Afghan civilian deaths, an issue that has increasingly angered Mr. Karzai.

The specially trained U.S. forces typically enter Afghan villages at night and call out for their target to surrender. But innocent villagers often try to defend their neighbors’ homes from what they fear are Taliban attackers or hostile tribesmen, and the U.S. forces end up killing innocent Afghans.

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