KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai, setting out his election manifesto, vowed on Friday to make foreign troops sign a framework governing how they operate in a bid to limit civilians casualties.
Karzai, widely criticized for withdrawing from a televised debate with two of his main rivals in the August 20 presidential election the previous night, unveiled a manifesto covering foreign troops, talks with insurgents and reconstruction.
Civilian casualties caused by U.S. and NATO operations, particularly air strikes, became a source of increasing outrage among ordinary Afghans and their leaders this year, even as insurgent violence hit its worst levels in the eight-year-old war.
“We need to make an agreement to put the movements of foreign troops into a legitimate Afghan framework,” Karzai told a campaign gathering in Kabul.
“NATO and America are our allies in the war against terrorism but we also want protection, honor, dignity and respect of our religion from our friends,” he said.
General Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, issued a new tactical directive this month stressing the importance of avoiding civilian casualties and limiting air strikes against residential compounds.
U.S. commanders have acknowledged they took too long to move to cut civilian casualties. The protection of ordinary Afghans is now the centerpiece of a new counter-insurgency strategy.
McChrystal’s directive was issued as thousands of U.S. Marines and British troops were engaged in major offensives in southern Helmand, Afghanistan’s most violent province and long a Taliban stronghold.
The assaults are the first under U.S. President Barack Obama’s new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and its Islamist allies and stabilize Afghanistan.
Washington is pouring thousands of extra troops into Afghanistan this year, in part to beef up security for the election. There are about 58,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 from other NATO members in Afghanistan, with U.S. numbers to rise a further 10,000 by year’s end.
Karzai gave few details about his proposed framework, but the issue of limiting the operations of foreign troops was raised in Thursday’s debate by rival Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister under Karzai and high-ranking World Bank official.
Ghani said he would seek an agreement with U.S. and NATO-led forces about how long they would remain and seek to close the main prison for detainees used by the U.S. military at its sprawling airfield north of Kabul within three years if elected.
A U.S. military report released this week called for changes in both U.S. and Afghan prison systems to prevent Islamist radicalization behind bars in Afghanistan.
Karzai is a clear front-runner ahead of 38 challengers. An opinion survey by a U.S.-based group published in May showed 31 percent support for Karzai, with Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah polling in single digits.
Karzai also proposed calling a loya jirga, or national council of elders, with the Taliban and other militant Islamist groups such as Hezb-i-Islami if he is re-elected to discuss ways to improve national security and Afghanistan’s many problems.
The Taliban have repeatedly rejected such suggestions.
Karzai had been under pressure at home and abroad earlier this year over complaints of poor security and rampant corruption after eight years in power but has consolidated his position, striking deals with several would-be rivals.
Another potential rival, National Islamic Revolution of Afghanistan leader Sayed Hashemi, withdrew his candidacy and said on Friday he would back Karzai “for national unity.”
Editing by Paul Tait and Jeremy Laurence