KABUL (Reuters) - Afghans welcomed Barack Obama’s U.S. election victory, saying on Wednesday they looked forward to a greater focus and new strategy on the war with Taliban insurgents that has killed at least 4,000 people this year alone.
Most Afghans were grateful to President George W. Bush when U.S. troops overthrew the Taliban’s austere Islamist rule in 2001, blaming it for sheltering al Qaeda leaders it said were behind the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
But with the war now in its eighth year, Afghans are caught between a deepening and resilient Taliban insurgency on one side and, on the other, much-feared U.S. and NATO military might backing an Afghan government most see as corrupt and ineffective.
“I applaud the American people ... and hope this election and President Obama’s coming into office will bring peace to Afghanistan,” President Hamid Karzai told a news conference.
During his election campaign, Obama was critical of Karzai over his failure to tackle widespread corruption, the booming trade in illegal opium and over the ineffectiveness of his government -- all factors that fuel the Taliban insurgency.
But Obama pledged a new focus on Afghanistan, which analysts agree the Bush administration neglected by sending troops and vital resources to Iraq, giving the Taliban a chance to regroup and relaunch an insurgency that now threatens the capital.
“I‘m glad Obama won. He’s young, he’s energetic, he’s spoken of the need to pay more attention to Afghanistan,” said women’s activist and radio station chief Jamila Mujahid. “Bush made a mistake by sending troops and resources to Iraq.”
Afghan officials called for more diplomatic effort to bring Afghanistan and Pakistan closer together to stamp out Taliban safe havens in Pakistan’s rugged border region.
“The request of Afghanistan is a repeat of our requests that we have had for a long time,” Karzai said. “Our request is a change of strategy in the campaign against terrorism; meaning the campaign against terrorism is not in the villages of Afghanistan, the campaign against terrorism is not in our country.”
But a visibly angered Karzai also demanded the U.S. president-elect put a stop to civilian casualties after reports emerged that a U.S. air strike may have killed dozens of Afghans attending a wedding party in the south of the country.
Scores of Afghan civilians have been killed in a string of mistaken U.S. air strikes this year. Karzai said the issue was the biggest source of tension with his U.S. backers.
The perception that Western troops do not take enough care to avoid killing civilians has added to the seething resentment felt by many Afghans at the presence of foreign forces, the ongoing insecurity and lack of tangible improvements in living standards.
The faltering campaign in Afghanistan has led Washington to order a review of strategy with General David Petraeus, the new overall commander of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, visiting Kabul on Wednesday to consult with Afghan officials and his commanders on the ground.
The man responsible for the troop “surge” in Iraq is likely to back calls from his generals for more forces in Afghanistan, but also to recommend that Obama focus more on development and promoting effective government to undercut the insurgency.
The Taliban said Obama should end the war by withdrawing troops. “The new American president should end a long era of wars and begin an era of peace,” Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press.
“We want to tell America and the West to withdraw forces from Afghanistan,” Yousuf said. “I have no expectations but if (Obama) sends more troops to Afghanistan, our jihad will continue ... If he brings changes to Bush’s policies in real terms, then he will be the winner and if he doesn’t then there will be more crises.”
The United States has more than 30,000 soldiers in Afghanistan but, together with NATO allies, suffered more casualties during the summer fighting season than in Iraq, where there is more than double the number of troops.
A growing chorus of Western leaders now say the Afghan conflict cannot be won by military means alone and other NATO nations with troops in Afghanistan admit the need to eventually negotiate with the Taliban to bring peace.
It will be difficult for the new U.S. administration to affirm such talks, however, unless the Islamist, but locally focused, Taliban clearly splits from its more extreme al Qaeda backers who have a wider international agenda.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi