Dan Kitwood/AP Photo/Pool
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S and NATO commander addresses RUSI members on ‘The International Mission in Afghanistan', at the United Services Institute in central London, Oct. 15.

Petraeus strikes back at Karzai ahead of major NATO conference on Afghanistan

A war of words has erupted between Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and the United States just days before a major NATO conference on security strategy.

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A day after Afghanistan’s president stridently criticized United States military tactics in Afghanistan, the US general in charge of international troops there has hit back. Gen. David Petraeus told officials Sunday that President Hamid Karzai’s remarks threaten to undermine the war in Afghanistan.

The war of words puts the differences between Mr. Karzai and the US in sharp focus just days before the Obama administration will present its plan for transferring security responsibilities from coalition soldiers to the Afghan military and security forces. It also comes as 30,000 additional US soldiers have recently arrived in Afghanistan as part of a new US strategy there.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that five NATO soldiers were killed in clashes with insurgents Sunday, while Agence France-Presse reports nine security guards and an Afghan police officer were killed Monday in a Taliban rocket attack. This is already the deadliest year for foreign troops in the nine-year Afghanistan war, with 645 international troops killed, according to icasualties.org.

Karzai’s criticism of the US military, made during an interview with The Washington Post, was published Sunday. He said that the US must reduce its operations in Afghanistan, and he particularly criticized how US Special Operations conduct nighttime raids on Afghan homes. He told the paper that the long-term presence of coalition forces in Afghanistan would make the situation worse, and troops should stay on their bases and be less intrusive.

"The time has come to reduce military operations," he told the Post. "The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan ... to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life."

General Petraeus responded the same day, telling Afghan officials that Karzai’s comments risked making his position “untenable,” and he expressed “astonishment and disappointment,” reports the Post. Petraeus considers the night raids key to counterinsurgency strategy, and, the Post reports in a separate article, “key to his hopes of being able to show significant progress when the White House reviews the situation in Afghanistan next month.”

"I think it's [Karzai's] directness that really sticks in the craw," another NATO official said. "He is standing 180 degrees to what is a central tenet of our current campaign plan."

"It's pretty clear that you no longer have a reliable partner in Kabul," the official added. "I think we tried to paper it over with [Karzai's] Washington visit" in May. "But the wheels have been becoming looser and looser ... since that."

The National Journal reports that two US senators also voiced strong disapproval of Karzai’s assessment. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said "Hamid Karzai is reflecting his desire to survive, also a degree of paranoia,” while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina said he was “stunned.”

The Associated Press reports that NATO officials thought they had received assurances that Karzai supported the coalition’s strategy, although the Post quotes officials in Washington who said the remarks are “not a surprise.” Karzai has criticized the night raids before.

Karzai’s spokesman, attempting to downplay the remarks, said they did not represent a critique of “overall strategy” and that Karzai has been “very clear about his confidence in Gen. Petraeus,” reports the AP.

The New York Times reports that the US plan to begin transferring security to Afghans, which it will unveil at a two-day NATO conference in Lisbon starting Friday, “will reflect the most concrete vision for transition in Afghanistan assembled by civilian and military officials since President Obama took office last year.”

The president set July 2011 as the date when the transition and withdrawal of US troops will begin, but has lately been emphasizing the 2014 target for complete combat withdrawal.

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