Karzai, McChrystal side-by-side in Afghan north

By Deepa Babington

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (BestGrowthStock) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai showed solidarity with NATO troops on Sunday, appearing at a meeting of elders alongside the U.S. and NATO commander as he seeks to put a quarrel with the West behind him.

Karzai and General Stanley McChrystal met hundreds of elders in Kunduz, capital of a northern region that has seen a surge in Taliban attacks over the past year and is expected to become one of the main battle fronts in coming months.

It was the third time in recent weeks Karzai has met elders alongside McChrystal, appearances that NATO says show off McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy of emphasizing the Afghan government’s role in military efforts.

That strategy has been strained this month by a public row between Karzai and his Western allies, which both sides are trying to put behind them after days of angry comments.

Kunduz, once seen as one of the safer parts of Afghanistan, has emerged as a battlefront and a symbol of how Taliban influence has quickly spread beyond the militants’ main strongholds in the south and the east.

McChrystal’s battle plan calls for 30,000 extra U.S. troops to turn the tide against a spreading insurgency this year, paving the way for Washington to begin withdrawing next year.

He is expected to send 2,500 U.S. troops to the Kunduz area in coming months to beat back Taliban fighters who have seized much of the province despite the presence of thousands of German troops who operate under restrictions limiting their combat role.

The upcoming campaign in Kunduz will be the first big ground fight for U.S. forces outside the traditionally volatile south and east, a sign that the insurgency has spread to areas where NATO forces once thought combat was not likely to be needed.

Germany has the third largest contingent in Afghanistan, numbering more than 4,000, but increasing violence in the northern areas it patrols has made the campaign controversial in Germany, where post-World War II laws restrict participating in combat operations.

McChrystal and Karzai have been making efforts to appear in public as a team to show the strength of their alliance, a task complicated by a feud between Washington and Karzai over anti-Western remarks the president made this month.

Karzai had drawn the White House’s wrath by accusing Western countries of carrying out election fraud in Afghanistan and suggesting he understood why some of his countrymen resent the foreign presence.

Karzai visited McChrystal’s headquarters on Saturday, and the White House said on Friday it considered the quarrel over.

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(Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Karzai, McChrystal side-by-side in Afghan north