Bloomberg News

Gates Deflects Karzai Criticism Over Afghan Civilian Casualties

June 01, 2011

June 1 (Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates said criticism by Afghan President Hamid Karzai of U.S. air strikes that kill and injure civilians shows his people’s “pain” and the need for joint investigations to prevent such casualties.

“I think President Karzai is reflecting the pain and suffering that the Afghan people have had to endure,” Gates told reporters in Honolulu yesterday. “I think he also recognizes -- and the Afghan people do -- that we are their ally, we are their friend and we are trying to help them develop the capability to protect themselves.”

Karzai had condemned a May 28 air strike that the U.S.-led coalition said killed nine civilians in the southern province of Helmand. An apology the alliance published was its third for such an incident in the past month. Karzai said he was issuing his “last warning” to NATO and would further restrict its ability to conduct attacks.

U.S. lawmakers are pressing President Barack Obama to speed the withdrawal of the 97,000 American troops in Afghanistan as the killing of Osama bin Laden raises the prospect that al-Qaeda might be disabled as a terrorist group. Obama in December 2009 authorized a temporary increase in troops on condition a drawdown would begin in July.

The day after the raid that killed bin Laden, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the al-Qaeda leader’s death will reinforce plans for a “robust” reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan starting in July.

Security Gains

Afghan criticism of civilian casualties shouldn’t be interpreted as a call for the foreign forces to leave, said Education Minister Farooq Wardak during a visit to Washington this week.

“The root causes of the terrorist activities in Afghanistan should be addressed,” Wardak said in an interview. “This is a difference which has been misunderstood.”

Army General David Petraeus and other U.S. military and civilian leaders are considering how many troops they can withdraw this year without jeopardizing security gains. At least 1,234 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action in Afghanistan.

Wardak said he would use the meetings with administration officials and lawmakers in Washington to urge that the U.S. not pursue a hasty withdrawal from the war following the death of bin Laden.

Peace Talks

The mission to secure Afghanistan and make sure it doesn’t once again become a haven for al-Qaeda, as it was before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the U.S., needs to be completed, he said.

“That goal has not been achieved,” said Wardak, 51. “The killing of Osama bin Laden is only one factor. There must not be any hurry, because hurry may be counter-productive.”

Wardak also serves as chairman of the international committee of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, established by a meeting of tribal leaders and other representatives a year ago to pursue a political settlement to end the war.

The Obama administration is taking more practical steps this year toward reconciliation, including discussing the need for a political settlement with the Taliban more openly, he said. The U.S. also has provided $50 million of financial support to the council and for creating jobs to lure lower-level fighters away from the insurgency, Wardak said.

The 68-member peace council’s chairman, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, is leading indirect contacts with rebel forces with the goal of achieving direct talks toward a resolution, Wardak said.

--With assistance from Eltaf Najafizada in Kabul, Theophilos Argitis in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Roxana Tiron in Washington. Editors: Mark Williams, Patrick Harrington

To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Honolulu via vgienger@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at Msilva34@bloomberg.net


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