President Hamid Karzai told the incoming commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan on Sunday that the most important part of his new mission was to protect Afghan civilians. Gen Stanley McChrystal takes up his command on Monday. The four-star US general, a former special forces commander, is expected to bring a fresh approach to an increasingly violent eight-year war.
President Barack Obama has increased the US focus on Afghanistan this year, ordering 21,000 additional troops to the country as the US military begins to pull out of Iraq. Civilian casualties have long been a point of friction between Karzai and the US, and the early warning reflects Karzai's impatience over the continued killings of Afghan villagers during military operations.
The Afghan government "will fully cooperate with you toward achieving this very important goal" of protecting civilians, Karzai's office said in a statement after his first meeting with McChrystal.
McChrystal replaces Gen David McKiernan, who was fired by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates one year into his two-year assignment.
McChrystal, a former commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command, will lead the largest international force in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001. A record 56,000 US troops are in the country, alongside 32,000 NATO-led forces.
During his confirmation hearing in Washington earlier this month, McChrystal said his measure of effectiveness "will not be enemy killed."
"It will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence," he said.
On Sunday, McChrystal assured Karzai that he would take "practical measures to prevent civilian casualties during counterinsurgency operations," Karzai's office said. In early May, dozens of civilians were killed when US and Afghan troops backed by US fighter aircraft battled militants in southwestern Farah province. The Afghan government says 140 civilians died, while an Afghan human rights group says around 100 were killed. The US, however, says no more than 30 civilians were killed, and 60 to 65 militants.
In recent weeks, thousands of new US troops have poured into the most violent province, Helmand, in an effort to stamp out an insurgency that has a strong hold in the world's main opium-poppy growing region.
The governor of Helmand said Sunday that the government currently controls only eight of the province's 13 districts. Gov Gulab Mangal said the government has no control in three districts at the northern end of the province and two in the south. He said he hopes Afghan and NATO security forces can implement the rule of law in those regions in coming weeks.
It appears an optimistic assessment, given the levels of violence and lawlessness that still prevail in Afghanistan's largest province, three years after NATO forces first deployed there. Thousands of British troops have struggled to contain the insurgents.
Last month they were joined by thousands of US Marines to help them extend the government's reach.
In the province's latest violence, a roadside bomb blast killed two civilians and wounded five others in Helmand's Gereshk district, said Doud Ahmadi, spokesman for Mangal. The blast occurred as a police vehicle was passing by, but there were no reports police casualties, he said.
Drug lords and Taliban militants are believed to earn hundreds of millions of dollars each year from the narcotics trade centered in Helmand. Mangal predicted that the province's poppy crop would drop this year, but didn't say by how much.
Meanwhile, Karzai called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday to congratulate him on his victory in his country's presidential election, Karzai's office said.
The Afghan president, who faces his own electoral fight on Aug 20, said that relations between Afghanistan and its western neighbor "expanded" during Ahmadinejad's time in office and that he hoped ties would continue to strengthen.