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Jun 9, 2010

U.S. grapples with making peace in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Obama administration says the Afghan war will not be won on the battlefield but it is grappling with how to make peace with the Taliban while balancing alliances it has forged with some controversial political figures.

The U.S. special representative to the region, Richard Holbrooke, told Reuters this week the United States could support bringing in “reformed Taliban” to the Afghan government but he reiterated certain “red lines” could not be crossed.

May 31, 2010

U.S. seeks to balance India’s Afghanistan stake

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Obama administration is grappling with how to balance India’s role in Afghanistan as arch-rival Pakistan also jostles for influence there ahead of Washington’s planned troop withdrawal to start in mid-2011.

U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is set to be included on the agenda in U.S.-India talks this week in Washington — with Delhi seeking clarity over rival Pakistan’s role, particularly in reconciliation plans with the Taliban.

May 28, 2010

U.S. sees Afghan “jirga” as boost to Karzai

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States wants next week’s peace “jirga” to boost Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s credibility but is counting on him not making major overtures to the Taliban until momentum has shifted on the battlefield.

“What we hope is that this process will help demonstrate Karzai as a true national leader,” said a senior Obama administration official of next week’s jirga, a traditional gathering of Afghan elders and notables to discuss prospects for peace in the nine-year war.

May 13, 2010

Karzai says issue of brother “resolved” with Obama

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Thursday he spoke to President Barack Obama about his half-brother’s role in southern Afghanistan and that he believed the issue was now resolved.

U.S. officials have voiced concern over the activities of Ahmad Wali Karzai, a powerful official with broad business ties in Kandahar, the southern city where U.S. forces plan next to focus their efforts against Taliban militants.

May 13, 2010

Karzai says issue of brother "resolved" with Obama

WASHINGTON, May 13 (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Thursday he spoke to U.S. President Barack Obama about his half-brother’s role in southern Afghanistan and that he believed the issue was now resolved.

U.S. officials have voiced concern over the activities of Ahmad Wali Karzai, a powerful official with broad business ties in Kandahar, the southern city where U.S. forces plan next to focus their efforts against Taliban militants.

As head of Kandahar’s provincial council, Karzai’s brother has been accused of amassing a fortune from the drugs trade, intimidating rivals and having links to the CIA — charges he strongly denies and which the Afghan president says have never been proven.

Asked whether the issue of his brother came up during his meeting on Wednesday with Obama, Karzai said: "The president did not raise the issue of my brother in Kandahar. I raised it with him and to the satisfaction of both sides."

"I am not going to go into further detail on that. The issue is resolved as it stands now," Karzai added, speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace on the last day of his four-day trip to Washington.

U.S. officials see Ahmad Wali Karzai as a polarizing figure who could complicate their efforts to win over the population and supplant the Taliban by bringing improvements to the way the province is governed.

Karzai said it was not within his power to fire his brother.

"Even if I were to resort to an activity of firing or hiring, fortunately Afghanistan is a democratic country and one elected by the people cannot be fired by the president. They can fire me, I cannot fire them," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asked for her opinion on Karzai’s brother and whether he could jeopardize U.S.-led efforts in Kandahar, said she had nothing to add to the Afghan leader’s comments.

KARZAI PLAYS DOWN KANDAHAR

U.S. military commanders have been seeking to play down the upcoming offensive in Kandahar. Karzai said it should not be seen as a major military operation but rather as a "process."

A military operation would indicate tanks rolling into Afghanistan’s second-largest city, which would not be the case, he said, adding there needed to be the full agreement of the community over how to stabilize the region.

"The effort in Kandahar and the surrounding area has to be explained better," Karzai said.

Clinton also said major operations should not be expected in Kandahar, known as the spiritual home of the Taliban.

"Making it sound like it was going to be a massive military action — sort of sieging the city, tanks rolling into the city — that is not the kind of operation that our military leaders believe is warranted," said Clinton,

The goal of the counterinsurgency plan, she said, was not to destroy Kandahar and fight the Afghan people but to "weed out" members of the Taliban who are disrupting daily life.

The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, told reporters at the Pentagon the outcome of Kandahar should be clear by the end of the year.

The test would be the views of Afghan residents.

"This is a very difficult challenge," McChrystal said, adding the goal was to create security without lapsing into major fighting.

In an interview on PBS, McChrystal said progress has been made but much remains to be done to turn the tide in the war.

"I think I’d be prepared to say nobody is winning at this point. Where the insurgents, I think, felt that they had momentum a year ago, felt that they were making clear progress, I think that’s stopped," McChrystal said.

Earlier on Thursday, Karzai visited Arlington military cemetery to pay respects to U.S. forces killed in the war. On Friday, he will stop by a U.S. military base before returning to Kabul.

The goal of the visit was to show unity in the nine-year war after weeks of bickering between the White House and Karzai following a string of anti-Western comments he made.

It was also aimed at showing Afghans the United States will be committed to Afghanistan long after U.S. troops start to withdraw from a target date of July 2011.

Karzai reiterated that Afghanistan hoped to be able to provide for its own security in parts of the country over the next two to three years and for that to be extended to the entire nation by 2014. (Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by John O’Callaghan)




May 13, 2010

Afghan-Pakistan trade deal close-minister

WASHINGTON, May 13 (Reuters) – Afghanistan is close to reaching a long-delayed trade transit deal with Pakistan that would allow produce to be trucked across its neighbor to key importer India, Afghanistan’s agriculture chief said on Thursday.

A trade pact would help Afghan farmers move goods to market in India more easily, which has been a challenge as officials try to entice farmers away from growing poppy crops whose proceeds fuel the Taliban insurgency.

Agriculture Minister Mohammad Asif Rahimi was optimistic a deal could be signed in time for an international conference in Kabul on July 20, but he said this would be the first phase of a new arrangement with the option to negotiate more later.

"By end of July" the deal should be signed, Rahimi told Reuters in a joint interview with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Rahimi, who is in Washington with Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week, cautioned: "Last May we said it (the trade transit deal) would be December and hopefully nothing dramatic will happen in the region to stop the signing of this."

A trade transit agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been in limbo for years. It was meant to be pushed through last December but that timetable lapsed.

Additional talks are expected in the coming weeks to hammer out a final arrangement, which Rahimi said was not everything Afghanistan wanted but a good first step.

One problem still to be overcome, he said, is that while trucks would be allowed to cross Pakistan, they would not be permitted to enter India, Pakistan’s key rival.

Instead, fruit, vegetables and other produce, much of it perishable, would be loaded onto Indian trucks at the border and taken to their ultimate destination.

AIR FREIGHT

Rahimi said this was an improvement on the current arrangement where trucks were stopped in Peshawar City and goods transferred to Pakistani trucks, then taken to a "no man’s land" near the border and placed on Indian vehicles.

"It is still not optimal," he said of the proposed new deal. "We agree on this at this stage with a clause there to further negotiate in the future."

India offers the greatest potential for Afghan produce but problems in transporting goods across neighboring Pakistan have been a stumbling block in boosting sales of apples, pomegranates and nuts — higher value products being touted to pull farmers away from planting opium poppies.

A big chunk of produce transported to India from Afghanistan is now sent via air freight, which adds additional cost. "Anything that makes exports easier, cheaper, exports more competitive, that is a good thing," said Vilsack.

He hoped greater road access for Afghan goods would also give Afghanistan’s farmers more room to negotiate better prices with air freight companies.

"A phased-in approach is better. It still doesn’t get the minister (Rahimi) precisely what he wants but it gets him a lot closer than he is today," said Vilsack.

When in Afghanistan in January, Vilsack and Rahimi discussed how to get credit to farmers, especially those who rely on the Taliban to pay them up front to grow illegal poppy crops whose proceeds fuel the insurgency. Poppies are a raw ingredient in heroin.

Vilsack said there was a plan to offer short-term credit to about one-third of Afghanistan’s farmers for the fall planting season as a way to resolve this problem.

Ultimately there are plans to revive a credit bank which is no longer in use, a goal Rahimi said would take several years. In the meantime, he said about $100 million of U.S. funds had been promised for initial loans to farmers. (Editing by Philip Barbara)




May 13, 2010

Karzai charm offensive may not be enough

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – He lunched at the White House, was feted at the State Department and dined with the vice president but will the special treatment lavished on Afghan President Hamid Karzai affect how he governs?

What is key will be whether the much-touted good atmospherics during Karzai’s four-day trip to Washington will speed up what President Barack Obama calls “slow and steady” progress in Afghanistan.

May 12, 2010

Q+A: Prickly Afghan-U.S. relations under scrutiny

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Barack Obama meet on Wednesday looking to restore trust after months of caustic relations.

Here are answers to questions about current relations between Afghanistan and the United States, what the sticking points are and how the tensions are being handled.

May 11, 2010

U.S. courts Karzai, vows not to abandon Afghans

WASHINGTON, May 11 (Reuters) – The United States patched over differences with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday, pledging not to abandon Afghanistan as the two sides held high-level talks aimed at showing unity in the nine-year war.

The discussions, which include diplomatic, defense, military and intelligence chiefs on both sides, follow weeks of hostility caused by Karzai’s anti-Western comments, including blaming the West for corruption in Afghanistan.

But there was no sign of rancor in the elegant State Department reception room where U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted talks with most of Karzai’s cabinet in what was billed a "strategic dialogue".

The top U.S. diplomat said the United States had a long-term commitment to Afghanistan and the two sides could have disagreements without rupturing ties.

"As we look toward a responsible, orderly transition in the international combat mission in Afghanistan, we will not abandon the Afghan people," Clinton said.

The goal of pulling out U.S. troops from July 2011 has raised concerns among many Afghans that the United States will turn its back on them as it did following the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan in 1989.

Clinton sought to allay those fears. "President (Barack) Obama has made clear that we will not allow that kind of detachment and oversight again," she said.

The July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing has always seemed ambitious given the widening Taliban insurgency more than eight years after U.S. forces invaded following the Sept. 11 attacks.

The invasion toppled Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers who had harbored the al Qaeda leadership responsible for the 2001 attacks on the United States.

‘STEADY AND MATURE’

Top military and civilian brass from both countries were symbolically seated together in the ornate Benjamin Franklin room, with ministers paired with counterparts rather than sitting opposite one another in a more formal fashion.

Clinton smiled broadly as she welcomed Karzai. The Afghan leader talked of a "steady and mature" relationship, a "joint venture" and "partnership".

It was in sharp contrast to a visit to Afghanistan by U.S. President Barack Obama in March when he entered the country in darkness and spent just six hours in Kabul, leaving without even having a full news conference with his host.

The message then was one of tackling corruption, with Obama saying progress was "too slow" in dealing with graft. But on Wednesday, Obama will hold a joint news conference with Karzai at the White House, where public handshakes and smiles will be on display.

Clinton made little reference to corruption in her public remarks on Tuesday, except to praise Karzai for the efforts he had made so far and gently call for more.

"We know that long-term stability requires improved government capacity at every level. It requires a common and concerted effort against corruption," said Clinton.

Karzai repeated previous pledges to tackle corruption and also sought to put behind him tensions with the White House.

"We will be having disagreements on issues from time to time. But that is the sign of a mature relationship, the sign of a steady relationship," he added.

Karzai later paid tribute to U.S. forces killed in the war and visited the wounded at Walter Reed army hospital, which he said was an "extremely painful experience".

"It was a stark reminder that we together have a difficult journey to make and that the young men and women of our countries are willing to sacrifice for the sake of security in Afghanistan and in the United States," said Karzai.

In his meeting with Obama, Karzai is expected to press him on civilian casualties which have undermined the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Obama will want details of a plan to re-integrate lower-level fighters from the Taliban as well as reconcile senior commanders, which will be hammered out during a national peace assembly, known as a "jirga," in Kabul on May 29.

Clinton reiterated the U.S. position that to be reconciled, Taliban leaders must renounce violence, give up ties to al Qaeda and abide by the Afghan constitution, which includes rights for women.

"We look forward to the inclusion of women in all aspects of your re-integration and reconciliation efforts and in all aspects of Afghan society," Clinton said. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman)






May 11, 2010

US mulls putting Pakistan Taliban on terrorism list

WASHINGTON, May 11 (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department
said on Tuesday it was looking into putting the Pakistani
Taliban, the group tied to the failed car bombing in New York’s
Times Square, on the U.S. list of “foreign terrorist” groups.

Adding the Pakistani Taliban to the list would trigger
punitive measures such as freezing assets tied to the group,
barring foreign nationals with links to it from entering the
United States and making it a crime to give any material help.

    • About Sue

      "Sue Pleming covers foreign policy, with a focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. She joined Reuters in London in 1990 and was based in Brussels before moving to Washington, where her most recent post was covering the State Department. She started her journalism career in southern Africa and has also done reporting stints in Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi."
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