US, Afghan presidents to discuss Taliban

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President George W. Bush is to welcome Afghanistan’s leader Hamid Karzai to his Camp David retreat Sunday for talks expected to focus on the Taliban insurgency and mounting civilian casualties.

The White House said they would discuss security and the US-led “war on terror” and “review their work together to enhance Afghanistan’s long-term democracy, prosperity, and security.”

They would also discuss ways of improving governance and fighting corruption including the drug trade, as well as measures to boost the Afghan economy and step up the battle against Taliban and other militants, the office of the US president said.

The Taliban insurgency began months after their 2001 ouster by US forces and has intensified recently, having already claimed thousands of lives, mainly of militants.

But a counter-offensive by US-led and NATO forces have led to increasing civilian deaths, and Karzai has angrily accused foreign soldiers of an “extreme use of force.”

Experts say Karzai is especially interested in reducing the civilian casualties as the largely Western forces intensify bombing raids on hideouts of the Taliban, which has increasingly adopted Iraq-style insurgency tactics such as suicide bombings and kidnappings.

“That is obviously one of the things on the agenda that is going to loom pretty large,” said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst on Afghanistan.

At least 600 Afghan civilians have been killed in insurgency-linked violence this year, half of them by international forces, according to statistics used by the United Nations.

Many of the deaths have been caused by the coalition tasked with hunting down Taliban militants and their Al-Qaeda allies believed to operate along the rugged Afghan-Pakistan border. Some 27,000 US troops are currently in the war-ravaged nation.

While the toll is making foreign forces unpopular and eroding Karzai’s credibility in Afghanistan, Bush is expected to reassure him that NATO, which leads a major international deployment in the country, is concerned about the bloody repercussions and understands the political pressure he is facing.

“But both sides — the US and Afghanistan — are in agreement that unless they keep the pressure up on the Afghan insurgents, there can be no way to continue this progress they are surely making against the insurgency,” Weinbaum said.

Most of the civilian casualties stem from indiscriminate use of air power, which can be reduced if there are more ground troops to take on the militants, but the Europeans have shown no inclination to commit more troops to the NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Bush and Karzai are expected to give particular attention to a kidnapping crisis involving 21 South Koreans in the hands of the Taliban.

South Korea is pressing the United States to intervene in the crisis in which the Islamic hardliners have already killed two of the 23 mostly young, Christian aid workers captured more than two weeks ago.

A top US diplomat said last week there was “potential” for military pressure against the Taliban to try to free them and end the biggest mass hostage-taking by the militants since the US-led invasion nearly six years ago.

Among other anticipated topics for the summit talks are Afghanistan’s booming cultivation of opium amid indications that the 2007 poppy crop may equal or exceed 2006 levels and that preliminary goals for eradication are not realistic.

Karzai last year rejected US plans to spray poppy fields with herbicides, partly because some Afghans fear chemicals could affect livestock, legitimate crops and drinking water.

“Without an effective counternarcotics effort, the corrupting influence of the narcotics industry would likely set the stage for Afghanistan’s reemergence as a safe haven for international terrorist operations,” the State Department warned in a report ahead of Karzai’s visit.

“The links between the insurgency and the narcotics industry are increasing and troubling,” said the report last week.

The Taliban militants are “profiting from the drugs, they’re sucking the sustenance from drugs,” said Assistant US Secretary of State Richard Boucher.

“We did see, in the springtime, that Taliban in some areas gave their fighters a month off to go harvest poppy. So the link is very clear.”

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