KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan's president sharply critiqued the seven-year Afghan war Wednesday, complaining that U.S. and NATO troops haven't made life better. The criticism came a day after he accused foreign forces of undermining him with a "parallel government" in the countryside.
The back-to-back barbs aimed at the international community's handling of the fight with the Taliban and the rebuilding of Afghanistan underlined President Hamid Karzai's increasing frustration with a conflict that has gotten bloodier each year.
"We haven't accepted the international community so our lives would get worse. We accepted them so our lives would get better," Karzai said Wednesday. "We can accept some destruction — even some civilian casualties — if we have hope for a future of security and peace ... but this (style of) fighting can't be the only way forever."
During a meeting Tuesday with a U.N. Security Council delegation, Karzai called for the international community to set a timeline for ending the war, although he didn't mention a specific date. He asked how — given the number of countries involved and the amount of money spent in Afghanistan — "a little force like the Taliban can continue to exist, continue to flourish."
The president expanded on that idea Wednesday during a joint news conference with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, saying he was not asking for a withdrawal date, but rather a "date for your success."
Karzai then turned to one of his long-standing criticisms of U.S. and NATO military actions: high-powered ground attacks and airstrikes that cause civilian casualties.
He said he visited Wednesday with Afghans from a village in Herat province where an Aug. 22 U.S. raid killed at least several dozen civilians. One villager, Karzai said, asked how the president would feel if he had to take his wife and son and flee his home every night for fear it would be hit by an airstrike.
"They get their children and leave their houses and look for a safe place," Karzai said. "Let's imagine that we are those people, suffering from those fears. If our children are being bloodied because of the fighting, we cannot come up with words for it."
Afghans all over the country fear the night because of bombings and house raids, the president said. He has long argued that civilian deaths anger the public and weaken support for the campaign against the Taliban.
De Hoop Scheffer said NATO is in Afghanistan for the long term and it is crucial the alliance's troops "don't lose the hearts and minds of the Afghan people." He agreed the international community can do a better job coordinating efforts and better train and equip Afghan security forces.
In a sign of the mood of Afghan journalists in the room, de Hoop Scheffer was asked what NATO had accomplished over the years, given that violence "has reached the gates of Kabul." He sidestepped the question.
Karzai said the international community for years ignored the urgings of Afghan leaders to deal with "the sanctuaries, to the training centers, to their resources" — his code for militant bases across the border in Pakistan's lawless tribal region.
"In the last seven years there was no attention to this issue," Karzai said. "And instead they threatened: 'You should be quiet, keep quiet, keep quiet, and don't talk about this issue."'
But the U.S. this year has stepped up attacks on suspected militants in Pakistan. It has staged more than 20 missile strikes on the tribal areas this year, prompting the Pakistani government to protest what it calls the violation of its sovereignty.
"They have realized the reality now," Karzai said.
Facing re-election next, Karzai is making increasing overtures to the conservative Afghan tribes most likely to vote for him, but he has been criticized for being ineffective and weak and there is unhappiness with deep-seated corruption in the government.
The president's two days of comments appeared to be a response to that criticism by laying the blame for the deteriorating security situation and other woes on the international community.
Foreign governments, the United States in particular, have been ramping up military and aid efforts in Afghanistan. The U.S. has some 32,000 soldiers in the country and military leaders say up to 20,000 more could be sent next year, while President-elect Barack Obama has said he will increase America's focus on Afghanistan.
Karzai complained his authority has been hurt by international forces setting up a system in rural areas of joint military and civilian teams whose primary task is not combat but reconstruction and development. He said the provincial reconstruction teams, known as PRTs, have undermine provincial governments.
"The problem here is, in a diverting play, the presence of the international community has created a parallel government to those such as of the Afghan government that are functioning. The PRTs in certain parts of the country have become a parallel structure to the governor of the province," he told the U.N. team.
Karzai did not elaborate, but a significant amount of international aid is funneled through the reconstruction teams, giving them substantial influence in impoverished regions.