Afghan, Pakistani leaders praise new US strategy

March 27, 2009 3:55:43 PM PDT
Afghan and Pakistan praised the new strategy President Barack Obama unveiled Friday, saying his emphasis on civilian aid to their countries would be an effective way to deal with the growing violence from Taliban and al-Qaida militants. Meanwhile, an Afghan soldier shot and killed two U.S. coalition troops Friday in northern Afghanistan before killing himself, said U.S. military spokesman, Col. Greg Julian. One of the international troops died immediately, and the other succumbed to wounds, said a joint U.S.-Afghan military statement.

U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001, but many members of the militant group fled to Pakistan, where they have been staging cross-border attacks alongside al-Qaida against Afghan and international troops. The Obama administration hopes its new strategy will improve security and bolster the Afghan government.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Obama's plan to strengthen Afghanistan's security forces by providing an additional 4,000 troops to train the country's army and police would benefit both his country and the region.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari praised Obama's plan to give his country $1.5 billion in civilian aid annually in an attempt to improve people's lives and counter the influence of Islamic militants, said the state news agency.

Obama said Friday that the U.S. would also send hundreds of additional civilians to Afghanistan, with the overarching goal "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future."

Karzai said the new strategy "will bring Afghanistan and the international community closer to success."

Other Afghan officials praised the new U.S. strategy, especially Obama's focus on militant sanctuaries in Pakistan. Obama called the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan "the most dangerous place in the world."

The U.S. and Afghanistan have repeatedly called on Pakistan to crack down on militants on its territory. The Pakistani government has pledged to do so, but many Afghan and Western officials suspect officers within the country's spy agency of supporting the Taliban, which Pakistan helped rise to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

"We particularly welcome the recognition that the problem in Afghanistan has strong regional dynamics and there has to be a regional solution," said Afghan presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada about the new U.S. strategy. "We also welcome the recognition that the al-Qaida threat is emanating from Pakistan." Hamidzada also praised Obama's focus on increasing civilian aid to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"We appreciate the focus on development assistance for the Afghan and Pakistani people while not losing sight of the fight against terrorism," Hamidzada told The Associated Press. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Friday that his country would play "a constructive role."

"We have common objectives with our friends and allies, particularly the United States, and we have cooperated and we will cooperate with the Obama administration in a very constructive manner," said Qureshi in Moscow on the sidelines of an international conference on Afghanistan.

Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Baheen lauded the U.S. plan to help increase the size of the Afghan army from about 80,000 soldiers today to 134,000 by 2011. But he said Afghanistan also needed help equipping its troops.

"We need new equipment, weapons," Baheen told the AP. "Still many of our forces are using old Russian weapons."

Afghan police are often even less well-equipped than the army and have suffered the brunt of militant attacks in the country. Obama's new plan calls for increasing the number of police from 78,000 to 82,000.

Obama has also pledged to send an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year to battle the Taliban and al-Qaida. There are currently roughly 65,000 international forces in Afghanistan, more than half from the U.S.

U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said Thursday that the country also needs to improve its intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan.

"I think the tactical intelligence that supports the operations both on the civilian and military side needs to be ramped up," Blair told reporters.

In a sign of the rising violence in Afghanistan, clashes in the south killed 18 militants, officials said Friday.

Troops killed 11 militants and captured another Thursday night during a raid targeting a key Taliban insurgent in a village in southern Helmand province, the U.S. military said in a statement.

In the same province Thursday, police killed five militants and wounded six others during an operation that also captured three fighters, the Interior Ministry said.

In neighboring Oruzgan province, Afghan and international forces killed two militants and destroyed a bomb in an air strike, the military said.

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Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt and Amir Shah contributed to this report from Kabul, and Steve Gutterman contributed from Moscow.

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