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Karzai handcuffs his own security forces

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The day is drawing near when Afghans will have total control over their nation’s counterinsurgency operations. They know as well as anyone that the Taliban will continue to occupy towns and villages to expand their foothold in the countryside.

For the Taliban, it has always been a war without rules. They’ve rarely had qualms about attacking school buses full of girls or taking cover in populated areas. Why, then, is President Hamid Karzai attempting to overly restrict his troops’ ability to fight this unscrupulous enemy?

Last week, Karzai signed a decree banning Afghan troops from calling in foreign air strikes on residential areas. Most likely, it’s an effort to win Afghan hearts and minds by reducing the possibility of civilian casualties. One major reason why NATO forces are so unpopular is the headline-grabbing toll that air strikes have taken on the civilian population.

But Karzai knows that enemy forces typically hide out in population centers and try to blend in with civilians. Rarely do NATO forces call in air strikes on residential areas without first coming under fire from them.

Besides, a UN report released last week said that, for the first time in six years, civilian wartime deaths actually declined in 2012, by a full 12 per cent. Anti-government forces — the Taliban and their allies — accounted for nearly 80 per cent of civilian deaths, the report said. NATO and pro-government forces, by comparison, account for less than 15 per cent of the total.

If Karzai is trying to use NATO air strikes as a scapegoat, he is sorely misguided. His new air-strike rule comes on the heels of a scathing UN human rights report that accuses Afghan government forces of systematically torturing prisoners. And Karzai’s efforts to combat corruption have failed miserably. The country is full of Afghans who can tell stories of constant shakedowns by police and government officials.

In 2010, the corruption-monitoring organization Transparency International ranked Afghanistan as one of the nine "dirtiest" countries in the world. Afghans are fed up. Corruption and human rights abuses are the Taliban’s most reliable recruitment tool, not errant foreign air strikes.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced an accelerated withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, which means Washington will rely more than ever on Afghan troops to fill any remaining security gap. The best assurance the West has that Afghanistan won’t descend back into its pre-2001 chaos is the ongoing ability of NATO to coordinate rapid-response attacks when Afghan government forces are overwhelmed by the Taliban.

To remove Afghan troops’ ability to call in air strikes on areas where the Taliban is sure to amass — populated towns and villages — is to make this job much harder than it has to be. Karzai should reverse his decree.

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