Afghan leader challenges Taliban "brothers" over attacks
KABUL (Reuters) - President Hamid Karzai called the Taliban "brothers" on Tuesday and reached out to them to do more for the good of the country after the insurgents carried out multiple attacks in Kabul and elsewhere at the weekend
The deadly strikes on parliament, Kabul's diplomatic quarter and three provinces, had only prolonged the foreign presence in Afghanistan reviled by the Taliban, and hurt economic and security confidence, Karzai said.
"You did nothing for Islam, you did not work for Afghanistan's independence and you did not work for its people, freedom and development," he said in a speech commemorating almost 150 years since the birth of an Afghan reformer, but aimed squarely at the insurgency.
"You worked to prolong a foreign presence, you gave foreigners an excuse to stay," Karzai said.
Clashes raged for 18 hours before Afghan security forces backed by NATO killed the insurgents in a dawn raid. Thirty-five insurgents were killed along with 11 members of the Afghan security forces and four civilians.
But in an effort to keep alive reconciliation with the Taliban and hopes of a peace deal before most foreign combat troops leave the country in 2014, Karzai said he would not stop calling the Talib "brothers".
"Some criticize me in the Afghan government and media for saying the Taliban are brothers, but I won't give up," he said to loud applause from officials and university students.
The Taliban in March said they were suspending peace talks with the United States and a plan to open an office in the Gulf state of Qatar to smooth negotiations, accusing Washington of double-dealing over confidence-building measures including the release of insurgents from a U.S. military prison in Cuba.
Karzai has laid most of the blame for the Taliban assault on NATO and his government's Western backers for the failure of intelligence agents to prevent it.
"Washington is calm and quiet and their people are safe. London is the same ... But Afghans were panicking and suffered religiously and economically," he said in veiled criticism of the West, whose continued presence many Afghans now blame for the country's ongoing troubles.
But NATO defended intelligence efforts and said it was not possible to block every insurgent attack in the conflict-wracked country, where the war has entered its 11th year. NATO is expected to complete its combat drawdown by the end of 2014.
"You will never be able to, in a counterinsurgency, stop every attempt of determined insurgents to infiltrate into a city of three million," Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan, told Reuters.
The assault also raised questions about Afghanistan's prospects just as foreign forces are making plans to leave.
Australia, the largest non-NATO troop contributor, said on Tuesday it would start withdrawing its soldiers this year and expected all international forces to be playing a supporting role for Afghan forces by mid-2013.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she would take her timetable to a NATO conference on Afghanistan in Chicago in late May, before which the U.S. government is aiming to sign a strategic agreement on a future presence in the country after NATO's 2014 combat force withdrawal.
Karzai challenged the United States to do more in the agreement to fund infrastructure and improvements that would be of benefit to all Afghans.
"We would like to help them save their money and give some of it back to us," Karzai said of the United States, adding he wanted at least $2 billion a year from Washington after 2014.
Comparing today to the time 90 years ago of celebrated reformer and Afghan journalism founder Mahmud Tarzi, Karzai said the country is struggling yet again to progress in education and develop socially.
Last week hopes for a peaceful settlement were boosted when the government appointed the son of slain statesman and northern Afghan leader Barhanuddin Rabbani to replace his father and lead the High Peace Council, charged with reaching out to insurgents.
However analysts on Tuesday raised doubts that Salahuddin Rabbani's appointment would move forward stalled efforts.
"Politicization of the peace process looks likely, and the president's desire to secure a young political ally in the North ahead of expected political conflicts will probably once again weaken an already dysfunctional High Peace Council," wrote Gran Hewad at the respected Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN).
(Additional reporting by Jack Kimball; Writing by Rob Taylor and Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Robert Birsel and Ed Lane)
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