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Karzai reassures Kandahar elders about NATO offensive

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, keen to regain the support of Afghans, told tribal elders at a meeting in Kandahar on Sunday that he would block a planned NATO offensive if they do not support it and that his government was not a "puppet" of the West.

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REUTERS - President Hamid Karzai, under fire for anti-Western remarks, distanced himself from his foreign backers in a speech on Sunday, telling tribal elders Afghans need to see their leaders are not “puppets”.

Speaking in front of some 1,500 elders at a “shura” or traditional council meeting in the southern city of Kandahar, Karzai said he would block an upcoming major NATO offensive in the area if it did not have the support of local people.

The commander of U.S. and NATO forces General Stanley McChrystal, who flew down to Kandahar with Karzai, sat on the stage behind the Afghan president but did not speak.

“Afghanistan will be fixed when its people trust their president is independent ... when the people trust the government is independent and not a puppet,” Karzai said, adding that government officials should not let “foreigners” meddle in their work.

“The other day, I told Mr. (Barack) Obama: ‘I can’t fix this nation through war,’” he said. “It has been eight years that this situation is going on, we want peace and security... I’m engaged with all my force to bring peace in this country.”

U.S. President Obama met Karzai in Kabul last week during a brief nighttime visit to Afghanistan, his first in the nearly 15 months since he took office. The visit was overshadowed days later when Karzai delivered a verbal attack on the West.

Second time in a week Karzai lashes out at West

The White House demanded an explanation after Karzai accused foreigners of perpetrating election fraud, bribing officials and trying to weaken him and his government.

Once the darling of the West, Karzai has fallen out with Western leaders in recent years, especially after a fraud-marred presidential election last August which saw him return to power.

The strained relations could complicate a counter-insurgency military strategy, which calls for NATO troops to emphasise their support for Karzai’s government more than ever.

NATO forces are planning on launching the biggest operation of the 8-year-old war in and around Kandahar, southern Afghanistan’s biggest city, birthplace of the Taliban and home town of Karzai and his powerful family.

Washington calls the offensive due to begin in earnest when thousands of additional U.S. troops arrive at the end of May or early June the main focus of its “surge” strategy to turn the momentum against the insurgency this year.

In his speech, Karzai promised to consult tribes before the operation and block it if they do not support it.

“These days the foreigners speak of an operation in Kandahar. I know you are worried. Are you worried?” Karzai asked.

“Yes we are!” some shouted back.

“Well, if you are worried, then there won’t be an operation, if you are not happy,” Karzai replied.

U.S. Major General William Mayville, in charge of operations for NATO troops, played down those comments, saying the president was “on board” for the operation and was only trying to win support for it from the community.

“It doesn’t really matter what we think. It matters what the 1,300 or so folks in that room think. (Karzai) acknowledged he’s the commander in chief, that’s helpful,” said Mayville.

“You’ve got to have the community really wanting in, otherwise things are stalled. (Karzai’s) convinced, he’s on board. We would not have had this shura if he wasn’t convinced this is the right stuff,” Mayville told reporters.

With much of the military focus on neighbouring Helmand, the Taliban have been making increasing advances in and around Kandahar over the past few years. Commanders now say taking the city out of insurgent hands will be crucial to ending the war.

Unlike the last major offensive in the agricultural region of Marjah in neighbouring Helmand, which began in February with helicopter assaults by U.S. Marines and British troops, commanders say the Kandahar operation will unfold gradually.

The message from most of the elders who had gathered to listen to Karzai on Sunday was clear: “come, but stay”.

Hajji Habibullah, a tribal elder from Arghandab district, a rural area on Kandahar’s outskirts, said the Taliban were active there and “always intimidated the people”.

“We want foreign forces to launch an operation in Kandahar but not like before: if they launch an operation, they must root out the Taliban,” Habibullah said.

“What they’ve been doing so far is they come to a village for a few days, fight a few battles with the Taliban and go back, leaving the people to the Taliban.”

 

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