KABUL Afghan President Hamid Karzai stepped up criticism of Western institutions and military forces on Tuesday, accusing them of hampering his government and causing unacceptable civilian casualties.
The criticism came on the second day of a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates intended to assess security progress but clouded by Afghan anger over the mistaken killing of nine boys in a NATO air strike last week.
With ties between Washington and Kabul at their lowest point in more than a year -- and Afghanistan facing a series of security milestones within weeks -- Gates arrived in Afghanistan on Monday to be met by a storm of complaints.
Karzai says civilian casualties are the greatest strain on relations with Washington and that international concern has also grown, with the fallout from recent incidents threatening to hamper peace and reconciliation efforts.
Karzai has come under criticism from the West lately over corruption and governance issues, most specifically over his government's handling of a private banking crisis that has put hundreds of millions of dollars at risk and could lead to the International Monetary Fund withdrawing its support.
With Gates visiting troops in the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, Karzai ratcheted up his complaints, repeating criticism that "parallel institutions" like reconstruction teams were undermining Afghan efforts.
Likening tribal police units being set up by NATO-led forces to "militias", he also singled out private security firms and military/civilian provincial reconstruction teams as impediments to the development of Afghan institutions.
"These institutions are against the progress of the Afghan government. If you really want a strong government, then you should remove these obstacles," Karzai said in a speech.
U.S. and NATO-led forces are working to build up Afghan security forces so that foreign combat troops can leave by 2014,an ambitious timetable set by Karzai and agreed to by NATO leaders at a summit last year.
Gates said progress made against Taliban-led insurgents in recent months meant U.S. and coalition forces would be well-positioned to meet U.S. President Barack Obama's pledge to begin a gradual withdrawal of troops from July.
The scale and timing of that district-by-district withdrawal is still being discussed, with Karzai to announce a transition timetable on March 21.
"We expect the Taliban to try and take back much of what they've lost and that ... will in many respects be the acid test of how effective the progress that we've made is going to be," Gates told reporters traveling with him.
"WE DON'T LISTEN VERY WELL"
But the controversy over civilian casualties, which flared up last week when NATO helicopters accidentally gunned down nine Afghan boys collecting firewood, has clouded discussions about the security transfer, peace and reconciliation.
Obama, Gates and General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, have all apologized over the killing of the boys. Gates described it as a "setback".
Karzai said apologies were not enough and casualties caused by foreign forces were "no longer acceptable".
"I don't think we listen to President Karzai very well," Gates told FOX news channel's Special Report late on Monday.
"Many of the issues he eventually takes public are issues he has been addressing with us in private for a long time," he said.
Relations between Kabul and Washington all but broke down completely after a similar spate of civilian casualties in late 2009, forcing U.S. and NATO commanders to tighten rules governing the use of air strikes and night raids for its troops.
U.N. figures show that insurgents cause more than three-quarters of civilian casualties, but it is those caused by foreign forces which upset ordinary Afghans the most.
Violence is at its worst across Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001 despite the presence of about150,000 foreign troops, two-thirds of them Americans.
Gates visited U.S. Marines in Sangin in southern Helmand province, where many of an extra 30,000 troops ordered into Afghanistan by Obama were sent last year.
"In the five months since you arrived, you've killed or captured or driven away most of the Taliban," Gates told a unit from which about two dozen Marines have been killed.
U.S. commanders expect a renewed spring offensive from the Taliban in the spring.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Paul Tait and Andrew Marshall)