KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. plans to begin drawing down forces in Afghanistan from next July are “invigorating” insurgents, Afghan officials said on Wednesday, agreeing with a blunt assessment given by the top U.S. Marine.
U.S. Marines General James Conway said on Tuesday President Barack Obama’s plan to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan from July 2011 had given a morale boost to the Taliban, who believe they can wait out NATO forces.
He also said foreign forces should only withdraw when Afghan forces are ready and able to take over — a view expressed this month by the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus.
Conway’s assessment is likely to fan criticism of Obama’s war strategy ahead of U.S. congressional elections in November as public opinion of the conflict sours and casualties rise.
“This is giving more reason and propaganda for the anti-government elements to prolong the fight,” Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimy said of Obama’s timetable.
“Such assertions could be used in favour of insurgents for ... empowering their forces and giving reasons to fight,” he said. “The withdrawal should be based on the capability of the Afghan security forces.”
Supporters of Obama’s July 2011 date to start withdrawing forces from Afghanistan, conditions permitting, say it conveys a needed sense of urgency to Kabul. Afghans must quickly ramp up the size of their security forces for a gradual handover.
But critics say the strategy backfired, sending a signal to the Taliban that the United States was preparing to wind down the war while setting unrealistic expectations among Americans about the pace of progress in Afghanistan.
“There is still a threat which unfortunately has not been eliminated, and the withdrawal (deadline) will ... invigorate the terrorists,” said Siamak Herawi, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Like the Defence Ministry’s Azimy, he said setting the deadline would boost the morale of the insurgents.
“Withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan should be based on the situation on the ground. When Afghan forces are enabled from every aspect, so it is obvious that international forces have to go home,” Herawi said.
NATO-led forces are ramping up efforts to train the Afghan army and police to eventually take over.
Karzai has set an ambitious target of 2014 for Afghans to take over complete security responsibility.
Military and civilian deaths have hit record levels as U.S. and NATO-led forces hit back against a resurgent Taliban, with violence at its worst since the Islamists were ousted in 2001.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday about the withdrawal timeline, Conway said: “In some ways, we think right now it is probably giving our enemy sustenance.”
“Though I certainly believe that some American units somewhere in Afghanistan will turn over responsibilities to Afghanistan security forces in 2011, I do not think they will be Marines,” he said.
Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Paul Tait and Ron Popeski