Monday, May 11, 2009

Obama adviser says US won't stop Afghan airstrikes


By STEVEN R. HURST / Associated Press Writer
Published: May 10th, 2009 08:50 AMLast Modified: May 10th, 2009 08:51 AM
WASHINGTON - In a blunt rebuff of the Afghan president, President Barack Obama's national security adviser said Sunday the United States would not end airstrikes in Afghanistan even though they are blamed in the deaths of hundreds of civilians during the war.
Retired Gen. James Jones said the U.S. would continue to make military decisions based on the best intelligence available. He refused to rule out any action because "we can't fight with one hand tied behind our back."
President Hamid Karzai has said recent U.S. bombing and airstrikes in western Afghanistan's Farah province may have killed as many as 130 civilians. Such missions, he said, have cast clouds of suspicion over the nearly 8-year American-led battles in the landlocked and deeply backward South Asian nation.
After the Taliban government was dislodged in late 2001, its leadership and Osama bin Laden and much of his al-Qaida structure fled across the forbidding mountainous into Pakistan.
But as the U.S. war in Afghanistan dragged on, the Taliban have retaken control over as much as 40 percent of Afghanistan; violence has soared and pushed deep into Pakistan. Bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain at large and are believed hiding in the mountains on the Pakistan side of the border.
Jones acknowledge the difficulty facing U.S. troops who are fighting the Taliban, which haves no compunction about using civilians as human shields. "We have to be careful to make sure that we don't unnecessarily wound or kill innocent civilians," Jones said.
Gen. David Petraeus, chief of the U.S. Central Command, was less direct when asked about the Karzai demand to end the airstrike, but gave no indication the U.S. would comply.
"We have to take a look at this, make sure that our commanders understand the - you know, the subtleties of the situation, the complexity of it, and do the right thing," Petraeus said. "So it's a difficult problem, but it's not unsolvable."
As part of his new regional strategy, Obama and administration officials met in Washington last week with Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, and Karzai for unprecedented three-way talks to advance Washington's efforts to wipe out the Taliban and al-Qaida operations and safe havens along their common border.
Obama's approach links American success in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan with stability in Pakistan, where the militant Islamic organization has operated without sustained opposition from Pakistan's large military. It is mainly deployed along the country's eastern border with India. Those countries have fought three wars since independence from Britain.
Petraeus said the Taliban represented a "true threat" to Pakistan's existence. But he joined Obama in declaring his confidence in the security of Islamabad's nuclear arsenal. Zardari also issued assurances that Pakistan's nuclear weapons were safe.
As Zardari's military continued its first major offensive in the northwest of the country, Petraeus said he believed that Taliban brutality in the largely lawless region had "galvanized" the country, including its military. The offensive opened last week while Zardari was in Washington for talks with Obama.
The U.S. repeatedly has expressed frustration with the Pakistan government for its hesitancy in going after the Taliban militants, who at one point in the past two weeks had driven to within 60 miles of Islamabad, the capital.
Pakistan's army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said 400 to 500 militants had been killed since the operation was launched.
Petraeus, meanwhile, said he believed bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were still in charge of al-Qaida. Jones wasn't sure if bin Laden was alive. "The truth is, I don't think anybody knows," he said.
Zardari offered a third opinion: "I've said before that he - I don't think he's alive," Zardari said. "They (American intelligence officials) haven't heard of him since seven years."
Petraeus said the U.S. was working hard to overcome "the trust deficit" in Pakistan, declaring that it "stems back to us dropping Pakistan in the wake of the expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan. It lasted for years, and it will take months and years to re-establish the kind of trust and bonds and partnership that are necessary to move forward."
The U.S. and Western allies played a heavy behind the scenes role in arming and financing what became the core of the Taliban and, in some cases, al-Qaida in their 10-year-long fight against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Petraeus appeared on "Fox News Sunday" and CNN's "Late Edition," while Jones was on ABC's "This Week" and Zardari was interviewed on "Meet the Press" on NBC.

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