KABUL – Afghanistan's president offered support Saturday for the new U.S. strategy for the growing conflict in his country, praising increased civil and military aid and highlighting a plan for reconciliation with moderate elements of the Taliban.
Afghan President Hamid 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, but President Barack Obama stressed reconciliation with more moderate elements of the Taliban when he presented the new U.S. strategy Friday.
"In a country with extreme poverty that has been at war for decades, there will also be no peace without reconciliation among former enemies," Obama said.
The reconciliation proposal is the most novel part of the new plan, which is focused mostly on increasing the scale of ongoing initiatives — promising 4,000 additional troops to train the Afghan army, hundreds more civilian specialists to help Afghanistan rebuild and billions of dollars in civilian aid to neighboring Pakistan.
Pakistan's president also welcomed the Obama administration's new policy to counter Al Qaeda as a "positive change" and insisted his country will not allow its territory to be used for terrorist attacks.
In a speech to Parliament on Saturday, Asif Ali Zardari said Obama's call for Congress to grant annual civilian aid of $1.5 billion to Pakistan was an endorsement of Islamabad's call for development as a means to fight extremism.
"In this strategy, the most important issue is Taliban reconciliation and peace talks as President Obama mentioned in his speech," Karzai told a news conference Saturday.
Obama focused on reaching out to Taliban militants who have chosen to fight because they need the money or were coerced by others. However, he said there is "an uncompromising core of the Taliban" that must be met with force and defeated. The plan singles out Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and other top members.
The issue of who is targeted for reconciliation could become a source of friction between the U.S. and Afghanistan because Karzai has signaled a greater willingness to talk to hardcore militants — even extending an offer to the Taliban leader.
There has already been tension between Karzai and the Obama administration over several other issues, including civilian deaths caused by international forces and corruption within the Afghan government. Both sides will have to overcome these tensions to make the new U.S. strategy effective.
Karzai praised Obama's focus on countering militant sanctuaries in Pakistan, a key part of the administration's goal of disrupting and defeating Al Qaeda and its allies who have made a comeback following the fall of the Taliban in 2001. U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government, 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 Qaeda.
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.
Obama's comments Friday indicated the U.S. would step up pressure on Pakistan by making aid to the country conditional on its anti-terrorism effort, one of the reasons Karzai said the new strategy was "better than we were expecting."
"It is exactly what the Afghan people were hoping for and we were seeking," he said.
Obama has also pledged to send an additional 17,000 combat troops to fight militants in southern and eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border.
Abdul Basit, a Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman, said officials were still "looking into nuances" in the new U.S. policy before answering questions, including how Pakistan might step up its efforts against Al Qaeda in its territory.
Pakistan's respected Dawn newspaper said the country's powerful army may bridle at the conditions attached to the expanded aid.
"The more transactional the U.S.-Pak relationship continues to look, the less the security establishment here may be inclined to cooperate," it said in an editorial.
However, Ishtiaq Ahmed, a professor of international relations at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University, forecast that Pakistan's establishment would embrace the new U.S. approach.
"The choice is very clear right now between a progressive, peaceful and prosperous Pakistan and a situation where terrorism with every passing day extends its tentacles further from the mountains to relatively settled areas and into the major cities," Ahmed said.
Afghan and international forces have stepped up their operations in southern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, the center of the Taliban insurgency.
Afghan and coalition forces killed 12 militants Friday during a gunbattle that erupted as troops raided a compound in Helmand province, the U.S. military said.
Also Friday, Afghan police killed two militants and captured two others during an operation in southern Zabul province, the Interior Ministry said.
Police also killed nine Taliban militants during a clash Friday in southern Kandahar province, said the provincial police chief, Matiullah Khan.
Janet Gul, an Afghan farmer living on the front lines in Kandahar, said he was worried about the increased violence that would follow the deployment of additional U.S. troops to southern Afghanistan.
"They should negotiate with the Taliban and find the way for peace," Gul said.