Kandahar: Afghan President Hamid Karzai sought support on Sunday for the NATO campaign to ramp up security in the key southern city of Kandahar and increase his government`s influence in a Taliban stronghold rife with violence, crime and corruption.
Karzai flew to Kandahar for only his second trip in recent years to the city — the biggest in the south and spiritual birthplace of the Taliban.
Karzai, who was born in the outskirts of Kandahar, is to have two meetings — one with about 50 tribal and provincial leaders and another with several hundred area residents. Many of them are sceptical of the campaign, which has already begun in the area.
Insurgents have responded with a rash or attacks against those who support the government and its international partners.
So far this month, at least 39 international troops have been killed in Afghanistan, including 27 Americans. Six Afghan police officers and three NATO service members died Saturday in separate roadside bomb blasts. The six police were killed near Kandahar, according to the Interior Ministry.
In addition, 39 insurgents were killed on Saturday in two operations — one in Kandahar province and the other in Uruzgan province, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
On the eve of his visit, Karzai met in the capital of Kabul with Afghan security officials and the top US and NATO commander Gen Stanley McChrystal, who accompanied the president to Kandahar. Aides described the Saturday meeting as a "decision brief" where the President was briefed on all aspects of the Kandahar security campaign.
Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said the President was expected to announce a few development projects for Kandahar in a move to gain public support for his government.
NATO and Afghan officials have taken pains to avoid describing the Kandahar operation as a military offensive, a term that has made the half million residents wary about what was to come.
Omar said Karzai would call the campaign a "process of stabilisation" to bring better governance, services and new development to the area.
He said Karzai also would discuss results of this month`s national conference, or peace jirga, which endorsed his efforts to reach out to the Taliban. Karzai was also expected to reiterate his call to the opposition to lay down their weapons, renounce violence, accept the Afghan Constitution and break ties with al Qaeda and other terrorist networks.
"This is Karzai`s only second visit to Kandahar in the last couple of years," said Tony White, spokesman for the chief NATO civilian official. "This process of reaching out to Kandahar can only be led by the president. It can`t be led by us. It`s important for him to address the senior leadership — tribal and religious — and show his support for the effort."
White said Kandahar was isolated and disconnected from Kabul.
"Karzai can`t get it back into the fold without the (the local leaders)," White said. "We anticipate that he will reassure them that there`s no military offensive planned."
A spokesman for McChrystal, Lt Col Tadd Sholtis, said the visit was "about Afghans taking leadership and ownership of the effort in Kandahar”.
"Security is an important part of it but also the crucial governance piece and also some of the major development efforts," he said.
As part of the effort to accelerate a political solution to the war, the United Nations announced that a UN committee is reviewing whether certain people could be removed from a blacklist that freezes assets and limits travel of key Taliban and al Qaeda figures. That was a recommendation of this month`s peace jirga.
"De-listing was one of the clear messages coming from the peace jirga," Staffan de Mistura, the top UN representative in Afghanistan, told reporters on Saturday. "The UN is listening to what the peace jirga is saying. Some of the people in the list may not be alive anymore. The list may be completely outdated."
A committee is expected to complete its review at the end of the month and give its recommendations to the UN Security Council, which will make the final decision on whether to remove any names off the list. The US, Britain and France, who maintain troops here, wield veto power on the council and would have to agree to changes on the list.
"If we want the peace jirga to produce results, we need to keep momentum," de Mistura said. "The aim is not war, it is reconciliation. And reconciliation ... can only take place through constructive inclusion."
The peace jirga also supported the release of some Taliban prisoners in US custody at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and at Bagram Air Field north of the Afghan capital. As a goodwill gesture to the militants, Karzai promised to make the detainee issue a priority and de Mistura said the UN supported efforts to release prisoners detained without legal basis.