- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

KABUL (AP) - Afghanistan and Pakistan praised the new U.S. strategy for dealing with growing violence in the two countries, saying the plan to reconcile with moderate Taliban militants was better than expected and calling a focus on using development to fight extremism “a positive change.”

President Barack Obama announced the new strategy in hopes of reversing the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, where violence has been increasing from Taliban militants who fled the 2001 U.S.-led invasion and have been launching cross-border attacks from sanctuaries in Pakistan.

In the latest violence, a roadside bomb killed three Afghan army commandos on patrol Saturday in eastern Paktia province’s Gardez district, the U.S. military said in a statement. Four other soldiers were wounded.

The violence provides cover for al-Qaida operatives who Obama said are also holed up in Pakistan and planning attacks against the U.S. and other countries. The overarching goal of the new strategy is to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al-Qaida in the region by increasing civilian and military assistance on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.

But serious questions remain, including whether the new effort will convince Pakistan to crack down on militants operating in its territory and whether the U.S. and Afghanistan can agree on which Taliban fighters should be approached for reconciliation.



In addition to focusing on reconciliation Saturday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai praised pledges of increased and better-coordinated assistance to his country and Obama’s focus on countering militant sanctuaries in Pakistan.

“This is better than we were expecting as a matter of fact,” Karzai told a news conference.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said billions of dollars in additional civilian aid will help his government fight extremism. He promised he would not allow Pakistani territory to be used for terrorism _ though he offered no new measures.

“The U.S. presidency’s new approach represents a positive change,” Zardari said in a speech to Parliament.

Karzai has long championed the idea of reconciliation with the Taliban as a key way to tamp down the growing insurgency in Afghanistan. The Bush administration generally opposed the idea.

The new plan promised 4,000 additional troops to train the Afghan army, hundreds more civilian specialists to help Afghanistan rebuild and $1.5 billion in annual civilian aid to Pakistan for the next five years.

____

Associated Press writers Fisnik Abrashi and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Stephen Graham in Islamabad, and Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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