MAHTER LAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Wednesday he expected a reduction in tensions with the United States, a day after President Barack Obama announced plans to send fresh troops.
Karzai said U.S. and NATO forces had agreed to improve the coordination of their operations with Afghan authorities to avoid civilian casualties.
“The tension the Afghan government had with the U.S. government is now over,” Karzai said during a speech in Mahter Lam, east of Kabul. “From now on, no foreign troop operations will be uncoordinated with Afghan forces.”
Obama on Tuesday announced plans to send 17,000 extra troops and later talked to Karzai for the first time since taking office a month ago.
Relations between Washington and Kabul have been undermined both by protests by Karzai over civilian casualties and by U.S. complaints he was not doing enough to fight corruption.
Presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said Obama and Karzai had discussed ways of improving security and the training of the national army, along with the troop increase.
“We have opened a new page,” Karzai’s spokesman said.
The agreement on coordinating operations was made late last week and it was unclear how well it would hold up in the face of an increasingly fierce Taliban insurgency.
Karzai himself seemed to hint at an element of doubt by saying that “If foreign troops do not listen to us, we will call a loya jirga (grand council) and we will also include the Taliban and (militant leader Gulbuddin) Hekmatyar to decide whether foreign troops should stay in Afghanistan.”
More than 2,100 civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year, 40 percent more than in 2007, the United Nations said, of whom a quarter died as a result of air strikes.
In Washington, Army General David McKiernan who is running the war in Afghanistan predicted a hard year ahead despite the extra forces and said most of the troops would go to southern Afghanistan, the heart of the Taliban insurgency.
“Even with these additional forces, I have to tell you that 2009 is going to be a tough year,” McKiernan, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said at the Pentagon.
“What this allows us to do is change the dynamics of the security situation, predominantly in southern Afghanistan, where we are, at best, stalemated,” he said.
But he said it would be a long struggle. “For the next three to four years, I think we’re going to need to stay heavily committed... in a sustained manner in Afghanistan,” McKiernan told reporters.
The reinforcements will take U.S. troop numbers to around 55,000, in addition to the 30,000 troops from 40 other mostly NATO countries already operating in Afghanistan.
Most of the new U.S. troops, including some 8,000 Marines and 4,000 soldiers from an armored brigade, will be sent to southern Afghanistan where mostly British, Canadian and Dutch soldiers have not had enough troops to keep effective control of ground they have captured from the Taliban.
The United States is also expected to put pressure on its allies to send more troops at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Poland this week.
Some European countries are reluctant to commit more troops, partly due to domestic opposition to the war. But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Italy was ready to raise its contingent by 500 to 2,800 by the end of April.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Britain had not been asked to send more troops and added during a visit to Kabul that the biggest increase would come in the Afghan National Army (ANA).
The ANA is about 80,000 strong now and is due to be increased to 134,000 by 2012.
Some analysts argue a larger foreign military presence runs the risk of being seen as an occupying force and sucking the United States into an unwinnable war.
Problems with bringing supplies in from neighboring Pakistan due to a Taliban insurgency there have also raised questions about the war, now into its eighth year.
Washington is seeking alternative routes through Central Asia, but hit a setback when Kyrgyzstan said it would close the U.S. Manas air base there. Kyrgyzstan’s parliament will vote Thursday on closing the base.
Italy, as president of the G8, said it wanted to organize a conference in June bringing together the world’s richest countries and regional powers Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, India, China and Turkey among others to find ways of bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Italy also wants to involve Iran, which shares a border with Afghanistan. “Italy is considering how to involve Iran, not whether to involve Iran,” Frattini said.
Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington; Writing by Jon Hemming and Myra MacDonald; editing by Robert Woodward and David Storey