President Hamid Karzai's recent complaints that the war should focus on militant leaders hiding in neighboring Pakistan instead of Afghan villages doesn't mean the government no longer supports the U.S. war strategy, the top NATO commander said Tuesday.
Gen. David Petraeus said he shared Karzai's concern about threats across the border in Pakistan but said the Pakistanis deserve credit for waging what he described as an "impressive counterinsurgency campaign" during the past 18 months.
The Karzai government has been increasingly vocal in recent days about the need to destroy Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Afghan National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta has argued that U.S. support of Pakistan amounts to nurturing the terrorists' "main mentor" and that the Afghan people are no longer ready to "pay the price for the international community's miscalculation and naivety."
"Given the very clear linkage between attacks on Afghan soil by individuals who have come from Pakistan and are commanded and controlled from Pakistan, I think President Karzai and Dr. Spanta have very legitimate concerns," Petraeus said. Still, he added, the Pakistani government has continued to "squeeze the locations in which these individuals have safe haven sanctuary, recognizing that more work needs to be done."
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press and two other news agencies, Petraeus said it's natural that the Afghan government wants to take more of a lead role in the handling of its own national affairs.
He said he's seeking clarification on the blunt criticism from Afghan governmental officials, but does not think the comments reflect diminished Afghan support for his counterinsurgency strategy, which aims to provide security and earn the trust of the Afghan people.
"Over time, I think it is very understandable — as was the case in Iraq as well — to see our host nation partners want to take the lead, want to be more prominent," he said.
Petraeus said he has drafted operational guidelines to implement Karzai's goal of having Afghan police and soldiers take the lead in the country's 34 provinces by 2014 as security allows. It remains unclear whether the Afghans will be ready to handle their own security, even four years down the road.
"These guidelines recognize that this is a process, not an event," he said. "It will typically represent a thinning out of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces not a hand-off per se."
Talk of a 2014 date enables politicians to tell their war-weary publics that the conflict will not drag on indefinitely, draining resources at a time of economic hardship and rising death tolls. It also sends a signal to the Afghans that the Western commitment to the country will extend beyond July 2011, when President Barack Obama says he will begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
"Transition likely will occur in districts, initially, rather than in entire provinces, although there are some provinces in which that likely will be possible," the general said.
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