Washington: President Hamid Karzai has warned that the US military must scale back operations and reduce "intrusiveness" into Afghan life or risk fuelling the Taliban insurgency.
The comments, which appeared to contravene the US military`s counter-insurgency strategy, were met with dismay from US lawmakers. They also put Karzai squarely at odds with US and NATO commander General David Petraeus, who has made capturing and killing militants a key priority.
Karzai said the presence of about 100,000 US troops and especially "terrible" night raids conducted by US forces on Afghan homes, inflame the emotions of everyday Afghans and lead angry young men to join the insurgency.
"The raids are a problem always. They were a problem then, they are a problem now. They have to go away," Karzai told The Washington Post in Kabul.
"The Afghan people don`t like these raids, if there is any raid it has to be done by the Afghan government within the Afghan laws. This is a continuing disagreement between us."
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who met with Karzai this week as part of a congressional delegation, said he was "just stunned" by the President`s remarks.
"We were briefed by our military commanders that the night raids... are making a huge impact on the Taliban, the insurgency as a whole," he told ABC television`s `This Week`.
He said the raids "didn`t come up at all" during talks with Karzai.
"We talked about, quite frankly, looking long term with Afghanistan about having two air bases in a permanent fashion in Afghanistan to provide stability, so at the end of the day, there was no discussion about a difference between Petraeus and Karzai, in terms of strategy," Graham added.
Karzai said "the time has come to reduce military operations”, a statement that runs counter to the US plan of intensifying military operations against the Taliban ahead of the start of a planned US military withdrawal in mid-2011.
He urged the US military to lighten its footprint in his country and shift toward a more civilian operation to "reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life”.
US President Barack Obama has soft-pedalled on his plans to begin withdrawing troops next year, stressing instead his goal of handing over security to Afghans by 2014.
Graham, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it was more realistic to wait another three years.
"The Petraeus strategy must be allowed to go forward for us to be successful. The security gains are obvious. We`re not there yet, but we`re moving in the right direction," he said.
"2014 is the right date to talk about. That`s when Karzai suggests that Afghans will be in the lead, and I`m very pleased to hear President Obama talk about 2014."
Karzai suggested the United States should focus more intently on rooting out Taliban sanctuaries in neighbouring Pakistan, and shift its emphasis in Afghanistan to development work.
Graham warned that ending the night raids would be a "disaster”, in comments echoed by an unnamed NATO military official.
"We would not be as far along as we are pressuring the network had it not been for these very precision operations we do at night," the official told the Post.
"I don`t see any near-term alternative to this kind of operation."
Karzai told The Washington Post he was speaking out not to criticize the United States but in the belief that candour could improve what he called a "grudging" relationship between the countries.
He acknowledged an abrupt withdrawal would be dangerous, but said US soldiers should be more confined to their bases and limit themselves to necessary operations along the Pakistani border.