Facing growing public anger over the rising civilian death toll from the war in Afghanistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has proposed a solution -- increasing Afghanistan's supervision over U.S. and NATO military operations on its territory.
Some take it as a sign of a deepening disagreement between Karzai and his Western allies over how to conduct the war in Afghanistan, but others see it as an attempt by the Afghan leader to garner popular support in an election year.
Culture and Information Minister Abdul Karim Khoram has said that for years, Kabul has been urging its international allies in private to change military tactics seen as leading to high numbers of civilian casualties. But no concrete action has been taken to address those concerns, Khoram said, forcing the Afghan government to make its complaints public.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Khoram explained the importance Kabul places on a draft proposal sent to Washington and NATO on January 10 seeking an overhaul of the way international forces operate on Afghan territory.
"Preventing civilian casualties [in the fight against insurgents] tops the Afghan agenda. We also do not want the foreigners to search the houses of our people," Khoram said. "If this [proposed agreement] is agreed to and is implemented, it will guarantee the success of Afghanistan and the world in the war against terrorism. And if this is rejected it will push this conflict toward a stalemate. And we will all lose out."
President Karzai, in response to rising domestic pressure and perhaps with an eye toward winning popular support in an election year, has taken credit for the "draft technical agreement" sent by the Afghan Defense Ministry. The document seeks a review of the strategies and tactics employed by NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan and calls for Kabul to have increased leverage in the deployment and conduct of Western forces. Sole Power To Search
Addressing raids on civilians' homes and air strikes in which civilians have been killed -- tactics that Karzai says have the effect of "strengthening the terrorists" -- the Afghan government proposes increased coordination "at the highest possible level." It also proposes that Afghan forces alone should have the authority to search civilian homes and to arrest citizens.
If Karzai's proposal "is implemented, it will guarantee the success of Afghanistan and the world in the war against terrorism."
-- Culture and Information Minister Abdul Karim Khoram
On January 27, Karzai met with the relatives of some of the 15 Afghan villagers who were allegedly killed in a U.S. raid on the night of January 19 in an isolated mountain village in Kapisa Province, north of Kabul.
A statement from his office said that Karzai told villagers that if he doesn't receive a response to his proposals within a month, he would ask the Afghan government what to do about Western military operations.
The same day, the U.S. military paid $40,000 to the relatives of the victims of that raid.
On January 25, thousands of Afghans protested in eastern Laghman Province after a U.S.-led coalition air strike that left civilians dead.
Afghan authorities say 16 civilians, including women and children, were killed in the January 24 operation. The coalition has said that 15 militants were killed in the operation, and has promised to investigate claims of civilian deaths.
In August, an air strike conducted in western Afghanistan led the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, to issue new directives to his troops urging greater caution in an effort to reduce civilian casualties.
NATO has said its aim is to give Kabul the lead role in all security operations as soon as Afghan forces develop the capacity and institutions to do so. The Afghan National Army currently has more than 80,000 soldiers and plans are under way to increase that number to more than 130,000 by 2012.
"The bottom line here is we are very much willing to engage in discussion to see how we can, in cooperation with [Afghan authorities], improve how we do business," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said about the Afghan proposal, which is being circulated to members of the alliance.
On January 28, NATO said that the 50,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force deployed across Afghanistan killed some 100 Afghan civilians last year compared to 1,000 Afghans who were killed by the Taliban.
Eyes On The Election
Despite promises from NATO and U.S. forces, the Afghan population has seen little revision of military tactics on the ground, according to Kabul-based Afghan analyst Wahid Muzda.
But Muzda also says that the timing of Karzai's proposal -- coming ahead of scheduled presidential selections this year -- suggests that it may primarily be aimed at cashing in on discontent among Afghans.
Muzda notes that nearly four years ago, Karzai missed a good opportunity to push for Afghan control over U.S. and coalition military operations when he signed a strategic partnership agreement with the United States.
That agreement said that "the U.S. and coalition forces are to continue to have the freedom of action required to conduct appropriate military operations based on consultation and pre-agreed procedures."
Muzda explains that Karzai's latest move could be an effort to alter the perception that he earlier failed to act. "Karzai has said similar things to the foreigners in the past, as he told the Americans to give him a timeline and tell them when the so-called war on terrorism will end. This meant that a definite period should be determined for the presence of Western troops in Afghanistan," he said.
It is important to note, he added, "that the Afghan government's armed opponents, namely the Taliban and Hizb-e Islami, have been making similar demands. But the Americans paid little attention. It seems now that Karzai has figured out what Afghans want. And he now want to [use it] to garner the support of Afghans...so he can win their votes in elections."
In an interview on U.S. CBS News on January 25, Vice President Joe Biden said that the new U.S. administration has "inherited a real mess."
Biden hinted that the United States is likely to send more troops to Afghanistan in an effort to stop the downward spiral. "We're about to go in and try to essentially reclaim territory that's been effectively lost," Biden said. "There are going to be some additional military forces."
But skeptics note that it is late in the game, with Western troops already under pressure from increased violence inside Afghanistan and their main supply line via Pakistan threatened by the Taliban.
Further discord between coalition forces and their Afghan hosts, they say, could bring unprecedented challenges to the already shaky alliance. RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report