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Afghanistan | International

As Afghans count votes, Karzai queries US tactics
by reposted
Tuesday Sep 20th, 2005 12:59 PM
Counting of votes from Afghanistan's election began on Tuesday and the commander of U.S. forces hailed the polls as a success but said more fighting was likely in the months ahead.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, however, said the Americans should change their strategy in the war against terrorism and focus less on military action within Afghanistan.

About 6 million of over 12 million registered Afghans voted on Sunday for a national assembly and provincial councils, the final stage of an international plan to bring democracy launched after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001.

Karzai, installed after U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in late 2001, said he believed the success of the latest polls was a defeat for terrorism and the need for foreign military action had decreased.

He said the government did not believe there was still a serious terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan and the focus should be on where terrorists were trained, their bases, their suppliers and sources of funding.

Karzai stopped short of pointing the finger at neighbouring Pakistan, which Afghan officials have repeatedly accused of providing sanctuary to Taliban guerrillas, a charge Islamabad denies.

Karzai, who had only limited success with efforts to tempt Taliban fighters to surrender under a reconciliation programme, questioned the use of U.S. air strikes, which have proven controversial when they have killed civilians in attacks on guerrilla hideouts.

He also repeated a demand made in May for U.S.-led forces to stop searching Afghan homes without permission from authorities.

Earlier, U.S. Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry hailed the election, but said Afghanistan and its allies could not afford to rest on their laurels as a big task lay ahead.

"The need for the international community to have commitment here and patience is absolutely essential," he said.

Eikenberry said more fighting was likely in coming weeks and his force would stay on the offensive in the autumn and winter.

NEW FOCUS

When asked about past comments by Karzai on the need for a new strategy in the war on terrorism, Eikenberry reiterated that it could not be won by military means alone.

He said the focus needed to be on building security, governance, the justice system and post-war reconstruction to build a society Afghans would fight to defend.

A key part of the international strategy would be to create conditions that ensured terrorists could never return to Afghanistan, he said.

The aim was "a middle ground", giving Afghans "a reasonable government, a reasonable police force, reasonable security, health care, schools -- something they want to fight for".

U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan nearly four years ago in pursuit of Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. But he remains at large and the Taliban insurgency since then has proven stubborn.

The months ahead of the elections were the bloodiest since the Taliban's overthrow with more than 1,000 people killed, most of them of insurgents, but including 49 U.S. soldiers.

The Taliban failed in their vow to derail the election, but launched more than two dozen harassing attacks on Sunday.

On Tuesday, two rockets were fired into Jalalabad city in the east, wounding two people, and four guerrillas and three policemen were killed in clashes in the restive south, provincial officials said.

Karzai and Eikenberry's comments come as Washington tries to persuade NATO allies take a bigger role against the Taliban, in the face of resistance from France, Germany and Spain.

Asked about reports that Washington was looking to cut its troop commitment, Eikenberry said no decisions had been taken.

Vote counting, which got underway across the country, is expected to take 16 days with final results not due until Oct. 22 after one of the most logistically tricky polls staged by the United Nations.

World leaders and an EU observer team have hailed the vote as a step forward for democracy but the turnout was significantly lower than in Karzai's victory in presidential elections last year. Analysts blamed the lower turnout on the vast field of 5,800 candidates, the presence of notorious warlords on the ballot and slow post-war reconstruction.

Analysts also warn that the new parliament is likely to be fragmented, as candidates ran as independents rather than on party tickets, and it could prove more of a hindrance than a help to efforts to strengthen central rule.

Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, denounced the polls in a video shown on Arab TV channel Al Jazeera on Monday, saying they were not free and took place under U.S. occupation.

"These elections are a farce more than anything else," he said, echoing Taliban comments. Zawahri insisted the Taliban were still strong and U.S. forces had to "hide" in their bases. (Additional reporting by Robert Birsel and Yousuf Azimy)