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Bush Tackles Critics on Afghan Policy

September 29, 2006

by Caroline Daniel and Guy Dinmore

Financial Times

President George W. Bush moved to address mounting Democratic criticism of his policy in Afghanistan on Friday, conceding the need for more legal reform and the existence of “corruption and sub-standard leadership” in the Afghan police but defending the nation’s “liberation” as “a great achievement”.

Mr Bush’s speech marks a renewed focus on Afghanistan, which has seen a steep rise in violence and a renewed Taliban insurgency. In the past week he has met President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, culminating in an effort to mediate by hosting a dinner for the two leaders on Wednesday.

“We had a long and we had a frank conversation about the challenges we face in defeating the extremists and the terrorists in their countries,” he said.

The two-and-a-half-hour dinner appears to have led to new ideas on intelligence- sharing and on how to deal with the border tribal areas that lie outside their control and provide a refuge for Taliban and al-Qaeda fugitives. Mr Karzai proposed that he and Gen Musharraf host two jirgas, or councils of tribal elders, one on each side of the border, with the two presidents and leaders from each country attending both. Gen Musharraf accepted.

“The main concept is to empower tribal leaders and elders to fight extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Washington, told the Financial Times. He said it was unlikely that US officials would attend the councils but that this had not yet been discussed. Mr Karzai is to visit Pakistan soon, and details of where and when the councils will take place will also be worked out in Washington, the ambassador said. He described the atmosphere at dinner as “friendly, with a few tense moments” but constructive. A Pakistan’s embassy spokes­man said the mood was “sometimes tense, mostly soft”.

“They agreed to tone down the rhetoric,” he said, referring to the harsh language that surfaced in separate interviews given by the presidents before the dinner.

Democrats have argued that the Iraq war has been a distraction from Afghanistan. John Kerry, the 2004 Democrat presidential nominee, has called for 5,000 more troops. In a rare rebuke, Bill Clinton, the former president, told Fox News: “If I were still president we’d have more than 20,000 troops there. But you know, we do have a government that thinks Afghanistan is only one-seventh as important as Iraq.”

Mr Bush appeared to play down the idea of sending more troops, noting that critics “claim that the country is in danger of failing because we don’t have enough American troops there”, but instead stressed the need to tackle the “ideology of hate”.

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