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Afghanistan To Join U.S. Regional Policy Review

Afghan President Hamid Karzai
KABUL (Reuters) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has welcomed a request from Afghanistan to take part in an interagency review of U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Afghan president and the U.S. regional envoy has said.

The review, ordered by Obama last week, will look at both military and nonmilitary aspects of U.S. policy as U.S. and NATO troops struggle in Afghanistan against a growing Taliban insurgency that also threatens Pakistan.

The review is to be completed before a NATO summit in April.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he was "very very thankful that President Obama has accepted the proposal of Afghanistan joining a strategic review of the war against terrorism".

An Afghan delegation headed by the foreign minister will travel to Washington to give its input to the review, Karzai told reporters at an event attended by Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Holbrooke is visiting the Afghan capital after a four-day trip to neighboring Pakistan. He said Obama welcomed Karzai's suggestion to participate in the review, which came after a similar request from Pakistan last week.

The envoy has made few public comments during his trip which will end in India, but said the visit to Kabul was "to reaffirm America's commitment to the effort in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda."

"We've come here to listen," Holbrooke said.

Obama has pledged to make Afghanistan a foreign-policy priority and either Holbrooke or one of his deputies would visit Kabul at least once a month, the envoy said.

The new U.S. administration is considering sending up to 25,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but also increasing spending on development assistance to undercut the insurgency now entrenched in the south and east and spreading north and west.

But as the war effort has faltered, so too have relations between the United States and Karzai, once the darling of the Bush administration.

Washington and its allies have repeatedly spoken of the need for good governance to combat the insurgency. Obama last week described Karzai's government as "very detached" from its people.

Karzai has hit back, complaining time and again about the accidental killing of Afghans by international troops. The United Nations says 455 civilians were killed in air strikes last year.

Both Karzai and Holbrooke said they welcomed a deal between the Afghan Defense Ministry and international forces to include more Afghans in the planning and execution of counter-terrorism missions, a measure intended to reduce civilian casualties.

Holbrooke also said he supported the decision of the Afghan Election Commission to hold presidential elections on August 20, by which time Washington hopes enough extra troops will be in place to secure the polls.

Afghan opposition parties have questioned the decision to hold the polls then as the Afghan Constitution says elections should be held by May 21, calling into question Karzai's legitimacy if he stays in office beyond that date.

The electoral law states however that the presidential term is five years, meaning Karzai should be able to remain in office either until October, five years after he won the last election, or until December, five years after he took office.

Diplomats say it is vital the issue is cleared up before May and that either Karzai stays on as caretaker president, or someone else takes office until the elections, which would be hard to bring forward due to poor security.

The decision to hold the elections in August "has the full backing of the Afghan government," Karzai said.

"You should be assured that we will take care of all issues and especially we will be very mindful of the issue of legitimacy and stability of the country," he said