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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 June 2006, 19:15 GMT 20:15 UK
Frustrated Karzai toughens stance
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

US soldiers in Spin Boldak, on the Afghan border with Pakistan
Karzai says foreign troops need to adopt a different approach
Hundreds of people have died in southern Afghanistan over the past few weeks and President Hamid Karzai is starting to feel the strain.

He has been in China all week, discussing economic ties and increasing co-operation, but the first news conference he had given at his Kabul palace in more than four months was dominated by his frustration over the increasing violence.

The Nato top brass have always been predicting a tough start, as they push extra troops out into areas the government or the coalition just hasn't controlled since the end of the Taleban.

Whether they were hoping for the best, and preparing their home nations for the worst or not, it's clear to coalition insiders that the Taleban are "fighting harder and more coherently, tenaciously and in bigger numbers than they expected".

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They are predicting "a bloody summer," but are confident that come the autumn the extra forces will have paid off and the Taleban will be severely weakened.

We shall have to wait to assess that, but President Karzai's couched criticism of the international community came across as something of an "I told you so".

Afghan President Hamid Karzai
The international community [must] reassess the manner in which this war against terror is conducted
President Karzai

"I did expect a rise in militant activity," he told a news conference.

"And for two years I have systematically, consistently and on a daily basis warned the international community of what was developing in Afghanistan and of the need for a change of approach in this regard."

He called for reform and strengthening of the police and army, extra resources and equipment and better assistance for provincial government improvements, but perhaps more importantly urged a change in the broad strategy.

He talked of "the need on behalf of the international community to reassess the manner in which this war against terror is conducted".

Pakistan looms

He did not, this time, directly blame Pakistan, but it is clear that is what he was getting at.

By urging the international community to switch the "war on terror" to focus on the sources of the "terrorism" in Afghanistan, he was pointing the finger of blame at his eastern neighbour.

In English he was more diplomatic; in Dari he expressed a "dissatisfaction with the lack of strategic decisions from the international community to stop terrorism".

"Strategic means the world should address the place where the terrorism is being trained, financed, given an ideology and encouraged," he said.

Everyone knows who he is talking about.

Media 'advice'

And this week there was another sign of a government on the defensive, as media restrictions were the talk of Kabul.

Afghan man reads newspaper
The media have thrived in Afghanistan in recent years

A list that could have been taken straight from a Soviet handbook of press manipulation was delivered by the country's intelligence agency to the majority of broadcasters and publishers.

It may have been shrugged off as unofficial, but this was not some maverick intelligence official pushing his luck - it's pretty clear this came from above.

Whether it was just testing the water, or a way of intimidating the free press, which has thrived over the past few years, it was a clear indication the government is shaken by the reports of the numbers of dead and injured coming from the south.

Taleban commanders have been interviewed and there are scenes of violence - bombs and bodies - on the news most nights. This is affecting "the national morale", as the press advice put it.

"Terrorist acts should not lead news bulletins," was one rule; another was not to present the military as weak.

Tough test

Mr Karzai was given the chance to reject the press restrictions out of hand, but didn't, instead choosing to support freedom of speech as a pillar of democracy, while adding that national security was the most important factor for the media to consider.

An aide commented on how the Chinese media were severely restricted during the president's trip, but it wasn't altogether clear whether he was criticising it, or admiring the system.

Operation Mountain Thrust is taking the fight to the Taleban, and things are going to get worse.

How the president chooses to deal with this could make or break his presidency.




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