Afghan reaction mixed on new war strategy

By Robert Burns
Associated Press / April 7, 2009
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KABUL, Afghanistan - Two US envoys trying to reassure Afghan leaders about the Obama administration's new war strategy yesterday heard a former Taliban mullah offer stark warnings about prospects for defeating the Taliban on the battlefield.

"No problem in Afghanistan can be solved by fighting," the mullah, speaking through an interpreter, told veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during their fact-finding tour.

Urging the Afghan government to grant a general amnesty for all insurgents, the mullah warned, "don't tell the Taliban to lay down their weapons or to surrender. They will never do that."

Holbrooke and Mullen heard a mix of approval and concern about the new American war strategy as they held a daylong series of talks with Afghan government, civic, religious, and tribal leaders. Holbrooke said the purpose of the tour was to communicate to Afghans what the new approach is about, as well as soliciting their advice and opinions.

Reporters traveling with Holbrooke and Mullen were allowed to observe their meetings on condition that the Afghan participants not be identified in order to protect them from Taliban retribution.

The US backs reconciliation efforts led by the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, but it has not favored accommodating the most senior Taliban leaders such as supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, believed to be holed up in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

With insurgent violence on the rise, Mullen and Holbrooke sought to reassure Afghans at every stop that the Obama administration is putting new diplomatic energy and focus, as well as more troops and money, into the war effort.

The response from the Afghans appeared generally positive, although some were outspoken in their suspicions of the US military's new tack.

In his opening remarks to Holbrooke, the most senior mullah on the Ulema Council - the highest religious authority in Afghanistan - said that Afghans are pleased that the United States has adopted a new war strategy. And he said the religious leaders have resisted demands by the Taliban to issue decrees against the Americans, whom the Taliban view as occupiers.

"Our answer to them was that the Russians were invaders and occupiers," the mullah said, referring to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which led to years of occupation that ended after US-armed resistance forces fought a bloody insurgency. "The US and NATO are here to help us."

The mullah and other Afghans who met with Holbrooke and Mullen were not shy about criticizing the American efforts.

"We also have some complaints against you," the senior mullah said, focusing on the failure to stop the infiltration into Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan of Taliban and other insurgent elements.

Holbrooke acknowledged the shortcomings, saying he and Mullen intended to make the lack of border security a major topic of discussion when they meet with Pakistani officials in Islamabad today.

The Americans also heard repeated criticism of the periodic US attacks that inadvertently kill Afghan civilians.

They expressed regret at the loss of innocent lives and pledged to redouble efforts to minimize the mistakes, which they also described as unavoidable in war.

Mullen and Holbrooke also met privately with senior American commanders, including General David McKiernan, the top commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Major General Richard Formica, in charge of training Afghan soldiers and police.