KABUL Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai accused foreign reconstruction and security units on Tuesday of obstructing progress and stability and said they would soon have to leave, just as foreign troops will soon start withdrawing.
Foreign reconstruction and aid programmes worth tens of billions of dollars have been hobbled by poor governance and security and corruption since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Karzai has long been critical of what he calls parallel institutions -- provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) and private security firms -- which he says impede progress and should be replaced by Afghan alternatives.
Washington alone has spent about $56 billion on programmes to rebuild aid-reliant Afghanistan and train Afghan security forces since 2002, but Karzai on Tuesday likened the integrated civilian-military PRTs to tradesmen.
"PRTs are not part of Afghanistan's government. PRTs and other foreign institutions are like plumbers and mechanics who are here to help," Karzai told a news conference at his heavily secured palace in Kabul.
"When a plumber completes his job, he must go away and look for a job somewhere else," he said.
Poor security and corruption have not been the only problems for such efforts, with overlapping aid work compounding the difficulty of trying to transform a deeply poor tribal nation where only 28 percent of the population are literate.
Karzai is set to announce on March 21 a programme for foreign forces to start handing security responsibility over to Afghans.
The district-by-district, province-by-province programme should allow for a gradual reduction of the 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan.
U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to begin a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops from July, with NATO leaders agreeing last year to meet Karzai's ambitious timetable to have Afghans in control and for all foreign combat operations to end by 2014.
At an international security conference in Munich on Sunday, Karzai repeated complaints that "parallel structures" were hampering efforts to expand the central government's influence.
Both sides have been wary of each other, with Kabul accusing its Western partners of squandering aid efforts, while Washington and others see endemic corruption and poor governance as profound problems which also help fuel a growing insurgency.
"Transition will be a conditions-based process," said Major Sunset Belinsky, a spokeswoman for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan. "At this point we feel it is premature to discuss specifics."
The PRTs usually work on projects rebuilding infrastructure and are often guarded by private security firms. Karzai decreed last August that the security firms must leave, but has since softened his decree.
Security across Afghanistan deteriorated markedly over the past two years. But foreign and Afghan forces have hit back against the Taliban-led insurgency since 30,000 extra troops ordered in by Obama arrived in the middle of last year.
But the aid and redevelopment sectors have struggled to keep pace and oversight of the foreign aid remains a problem.
Karzai maintained Afghans must be in charge in every area, including security. Whether Afghan security forces will be ready is a major concern despite a big effort to ramp up numbers, with few metrics in place to measure qualitative improvements.
"Afghanistan wants control of its own affairs by all means in the security sector. Whether Afghanistan is ready or not must not be a reason," Karzai said.
"The Afghans don't want a European government, the Afghans don't want an American government ... Afghans want an Afghan government," he said.
Doubts over the transition process were underscored by a survey last week that showed Afghanistan's police force is only slightly more popular than the Taliban in the insurgency's southern heartlands of Helmand and Kandahar.
(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Paul Tait and Yoko Nishikawa)