- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2009

KABUL (AP) - Afghanistan’s president said Saturday that the new U.S. strategy for the worsening conflict in his country is “better than we were expecting” and provides the right solutions for the problems afflicting the region.

President Hamid Karzai praised U.S. plans to strengthen Afghanistan’s army and police and provide greater civilian aid to help rebuild the country. He also welcomed President Barack Obama’s focus on countering militant sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan, which has been a point of tension between Afghan and Pakistani officials.

“This is better than we were expecting as a matter of fact. We back it,” Karzai told a news conference Saturday, a day after Obama announced the details of the new U.S. strategy. “It is exactly what the Afghan people were hoping for and we were seeking.”

The plan also supports reaching out to more moderate members of the Taliban with the hope of persuading them to lay down their weapons. Karzai praised this aspect as the most important.

“In this strategy, the most important issue is Taliban reconciliation and peace talks as President Obama mentioned in his speech,” Karzai said.

Obama’s plan seeks to disrupt and defeat al-Qaida and its allies who have made a comeback following the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban, but many of the militants fled south and east into Pakistan where they have been launching cross-border attacks against Afghan and international forces alongside al-Qaida.

The new U.S. strategy includes 4,000 additional troops to help train Afghanistan’s army and police. The plan also calls for hundreds of additional civilians to help with Afghan reconstruction and billions of dollars in additional civilian aid to Pakistan to improve people’s lives and curtail the influence of Islamic militants.

In announcing the new plan, Obama also criticized the level of corruption in the Afghan government and said it needed to reform to deliver basic services to its people. The issue of corruption has been a source of tension between the Afghan and U.S. governments, but Karzai said Saturday that the new U.S. strategy was focused on the right issues, including corruption within his government and militant sanctuaries in Pakistan.

The U.S. and Afghanistan have repeatedly urged Pakistan to crack down on militants in its territory. The Pakistani government has pledged to do so, but many Afghan and Western officials suspect officers within the country’s spy agency of supporting the Taliban, which Pakistan helped bring to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Afghan and international forces have stepped up their operations in southern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. Troops and police killed 14 militants during two operations in the area, officials said Saturday.

Afghan and coalition forces killed 12 militants Friday during a clash that erupted as troops raided a compound in Helmand province, the U.S. military said.

The troops encountered gunfire from in and around the compound as they approached, a U.S statement said. The troops returned fire and called in support to counter the threat from militants who were concealed in a line of trees and maneuvering in a field, it said.

Some of the militants inside the compound in Nahr Surk district tried to use women and children as shields during the battle, and calls by the troops for the civilians to leave were not heeded, the military said. One child received a minor injury and was treated by coalition troops, it said.

U.S. and NATO officials say militants regularly operate out of homes and portray dead fighters as civilians to stoke public anger and turn residents against foreign troops. The issue has caused tension between the Afghan government and international forces.

Also in the south, Afghan police killed two militants and captured two others during an operation in Qalat, the capital of Zabul province, the Interior Ministry said.

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