KABUL, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai will work with U.S. President George W. Bush at a meeting later this month to find ways to reduce civilian casualties, the foreign minister said on Saturday.
Many in Afghanistan are angry over an increase in civilian casualties in recent weeks and it has led to a rift between Karzai’s government and its Western backers before a Sept. 26 meeting between Bush and Karzai in Washington.
“We have to look together to find a mechanism and procedure to reduce the number of civilian casualties,” Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta told Reuters in an interview.
Spanta said military operations by Afghan rather than foreign troops would reduce civilian casualties because they are less likely to be misled by local intelligence from tribal chieftains.
The minister also said he wanted more troops on the ground, an opinion shared by many coalition commanders. He did not say whether they should be foreign or Afghan troops.
“In this year, more than 50 percent of operations were implemented under the leadership of the Afghan national army. In each action of the Afghan national army the number of civilian casualties were equal to zero or very low,” Spanta said.
“Yes, because they understand the people, they understand the geography of this country. They will talk to the elders of the people. They understand better the tradition, they can check the information.”
Violence has surged in Afghanistan this year with nearly 3,000 people killed. It has also been the bloodiest summer for foreign troops since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
In August, a U.S.-led coalition air strike in western Herat province killed more than 90 civilians, mostly women and children, the Afghan government and the United Nations said. The U.S. military is investigating the incident.
An increase in the use of air power has resulted in a high number of deaths in “opportunity” strikes when ground troops come under attack, a human rights group said.
In the first seven months of this year, at least 119 civilians were killed in air strikes, most in U.S.-led coalition raids, Human Rights Watch said in the report.
“I think one of the problems is that the number of land troops is not enough to combat terrorism,” Spanta said.
“And sometimes they need to use more air force and as an end result you have a huge number of civilian casualties. We need more land troops to fight terrorism.”
The Karzai-Bush meeting also comes amid tension over stepped-up U.S. strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan without the approval of Pakistan authorities.
“We have serious concerns about stability in the region, especially in Pakistan,” Spanta said.
The United States has stepped up attacks on militants in Pakistan with attacks by pilotless drones and a helicopter-borne ground assault this month to try to stop the resurgent Taliban.
The Afghan government says it supports the strikes.
“We lost more than six years. We had to start this process six years ago. We discussed that issue on different occasions with friends in the international community. We need to address the sources of terrorism,” Spanta said.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari said on Saturday his government would not tolerate infringement of its territory in the name of the fight against militancy.
But Spanta also said Afghanistan was keen to improve relations, giving the new Pakistani civilian government time to rein in the military spy service (ISI) it blames for a car bomb attack on the Indian embassy in July.
“I hope that they can bring ISI under control. But our official position is, we don’t blame ISI or the military currently because we took the decision to have a demonstration of goodwill against Pakistan.” (Editing by Elizabeth Piper)