Karzai's attack on Petraeus puts in doubt US exit strategy

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The Independent Online

The crucial endgame of the ferocious Afghan war, the most difficult foreign policy crisis currently facing the West, is due to be laid out later this week with plans to withdraw combat forces by the end of 2014.

But the exit strategy, due to be unveiled at the Nato summit in Lisbon, is being overshadowed by strident criticism from Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, of how the US-led coalition is conducting the war. Mr Karzai said that the presence of a vast number of foreign troops in his country was alienating the population and buttressing the Taliban.

President Karzai's attack has led to bitter resentment among Western officials while, at the same time, attracted attention to the intrinsic contradictions in Nato's Afghan strategy. The Afghan leader is accused of undermining the very forces which are keeping his government – viewed as mired in corruption by the international community – in power at a time when the soldiers have suffered their highest losses of the war in a month.

General David Petraeus, the US commander of Nato forces whose strategy is the target of Mr Karzai's accusations, is "astonished and disappointed" and is said to be even feeling that the situation may make his position "untenable". His resignation would be seen as a crippling blow to a mission in which Barack Obama sacked the two previous commanders, General Stanley McChrystal and General David McKiernan.

General McChrystal had been painstakingly cultivating President Karzai. But his successor, General Petraeus, with the apparent sanction of the White House, has been harder-edged, pushing through policies such as setting up counter-insurgent militias in the face of opposition from the Afghan leader.

Mr Karzai had said: "The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan." But in an assessment due in December, General Petraeus is expected to say that the withdrawal of US forces from July 2011, one of the stipulations President Obama made when he authorised the surge of thousands of reinforcements, cannot take place on any major scale.

Mr Karzai will then have to accept the continuing presence of a large international force if General Petraeus is to continue to run the war in Afghanistan.

A foreign diplomat told the The Washington Post: "For [Karzai] to go this way, and at that particular stage, is really undermining [General Petraeus's] endeavours." Afghan officials said that Mr Karzai had complete faith in General Petraeus. Another Western official claimed Mr Karzai was "standing 180 degrees to what is a central tenet of our current campaign plan" and was no longer "a reliable partner".

Speaking about the importance of the Lisbon summit for Afghanistan, the Nato Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said: "I can't say I agree with everything President Karzai has stated on all issues but we also have to accept that he is the elected President of the country and of course he can express his views as he wishes."

But Mr Rasmussen immediately added that there was no alternative to fighting to bring insurgents to peace talks. He said: "I consider it of utmost importance to continue our military operations because the fact is it is the increasing military pressure on the Taliban and the Taliban leadership that has stimulated the reconciliation talks."

A previous Nato meeting at the Estonian capital, Tallinn, had envisaged that some Afghan provinces would be handed over to the control of the Karzai government by the end of the year.

A different timeline is due to be given in Lisbon with areas, rather than whole provinces, being handed over to Afghan control starting next year. The programme will begin with the relatively quiet areas in the north and the west of the country.

Mr Rasmussen and other Western officials stress that the scaling back of combat troops would not mean the wholesale withdrawal of international troops. A viable force will have to remain behind to continue training Afghan security forces and also go to their aid in a crisis.

International troops whose areas are handed over to Afghan control will be expected to help out in other parts still under Nato auspices, rather than go home. "Just because a country's forces are in Helmand does not mean they should be the last ones to leave," Mr Rasmussen said.

This would mean that contingents such as the Italian and German ones, in charge of regions which are likely to be among the first transferred, would have to move to the south and east where they bulk of the fighting is taking place, a development to which the respective governments are unlikely to agree.