KABUL, Afghanistan – Top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, was frustrated by the Afghan president's blunt call for a reduced military footprint in the country — a remark that threatened to undermine efforts to maintain international support for the war at this week's NATO summit.
President Hamid Karzai said in an interview this week that he wanted the coalition to put an end to night raids, which cause friction between Afghans and foreign troops. These operations are a key part in Petraeus' strategy to rout insurgents, improve security and bolster governance and development.
Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, downplayed the president's comments and said he did not think they would affect a NATO conference where attendees will discuss the way Afghan security forces will take the lead in defending and protecting the nation by 2014.
NATO and diplomatic officials said Monday that Petraeus was annoyed by Karzai's remarks, which came just days before the NATO summit starts Friday in Lisbon, Portugal. They said NATO had received assurances that Karzai was on-board with the coalition's strategy and that international forces were working hard to address some of his concerns.
Support for the war is waning in the capitals of troop-contributing nations and NATO officials hope to use the Lisbon summit to convince heads of state that progress is being made, and that the effort warrants continued support.
Omar said the president has confidence in Gen. Petraeus.
"The president has once again made it clear that this is not a critique of the overall strategy," Omar said. "But this is a reflection of a mature partnership whereby partners are confident and partners take the liberty to express their views as to how certain things within the over strategy could improve."
In an interview with The Washington Post, Karzai said the time has come to reduce military operations and the "intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life."
He said he wants American troops off the roads and out of Afghan homes and that the long-term presence of so many foreign soldiers will only make the war worse. Karzai's remarks come just as more than 30,000 U.S. reinforcements have all arrived and are pushing hard against Taliban strongholds especially in the south and east.
Karzai also said the U.S. should end the rising number of Special Operations forces night raids that aggravate Afghans and could strengthen the Taliban insurgency.
"I don't like it in any manner and the Afghan people don't like these raids in any manner," Karzai said. "We don't like raids in our homes. This is a problem between us and I hope this ends as soon as possible. ... Terrorism is not invading Afghan homes and fighting terrorism is not being intrusive in the daily Afghan life."
Karzai's remarks surprised a U.S. lawmaker in Washington who visited Karzai last week.
"I'm just stunned," U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "To take the night raids off the table would be a disaster."
Graham said he met Karzai as part of a congressional delegation that visited Afghanistan last week and the president never raised the issue of night raids.
Graham said Petraeus must be allowed to continue with his counterinsurgency strategy. "We own the night militarily, and are making a huge impact on the Taliban, the insurgency as a whole," he said.
A senior official with the coalition said the NATO raids, which have increased six-fold in the past 18 months, are conducted in full partnership with Afghan troops.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Karzai's remarks, said that the coalition shares Karzai's concerns about the operations. But he said that precision operations against high-value insurgents and their networks remained a key component of NATO's comprehensive civilian-military counterinsurgency operations.
Omar also said Monday that the disbanding of security companies that escort NATO convoys will take part in two stages — suggesting these companies will likely be allowed to stay past a Dec. 17 deadline that Karzai had decreed for their dissolving
The decree raised cries of alarm among the many companies and officials who employ armed guards as escorts and to guard compounds, along with NATO, which uses them to guard supply convoys.
The Afghan government has estimated that there are between 30,000 and 40,000 armed security guards working in the country in 52 licensed security firms. About 26,000 of them work for the U.S. government, mostly as military escorts, according to U.S. officials.
Omar said that convoy security companies will fall under the Interior Ministry in the first stage of the transition. Then, once a police battalion has been trained for the task of guarding convoys, it will replace these companies. Omar did not provide a timeline for this transition, saying that details would be available after the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
Separately, NATO said Monday that another two service members died in an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan the previous day, raising the toll of those killed in the single incident to five. The deaths bring to 33 the number of coalition service members who have died in Afghanistan so far this month. In another attack, an insurgent rocket sparked a huge blaze inside an American base.
NATO did not provide details on Sunday's attack or the nationalities of the service members. Though a number of nations have troops in the east, the majority of the forces are American.
In eastern Kunar province on Monday, an insurgent rocket struck inside a U.S. base near the provincial capital of Asadabad, sparking a blaze that destroyed six armored vehicles and an ambulance, NATO and Afghan officials said.
Associated Press Television News video showed plumes of black smoke rising from inside Camp Wright through much of the morning, with flames shooting up into the air. Provincial police chief Khalilullah Zaiyi said Afghan firefighters were dispatched to help quell the blaze.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack.
The base came under attack from gunfire and rockets early in the morning and one rocket hit a fuel container, starting the fire, NATO said. There were no coalition injuries and the fire was contained by late morning. The six armored vehicles destroyed were Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles known as MRAPS, which can cost as much as $1 million each.
Associated Press Writers Rahim Faiez and Heidi Vogt in Kabul contributed to this report.