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Nato proposals for Afghan pullout are mired in discord

By Kim Sengupta and Julius Cavendish

The crucial endgame of the ferocious Afghan war, the most difficult foreign policy crisis currently facing the West, is due to be laid out later this week with plans to withdraw combat forces by the end of 2014.

But the exit strategy, due to be unveiled at the Nato summit in Lisbon, is being overshadowed by strident criticism from Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, of how the US-led coalition is conducting the war.

Mr Karzai said that the presence of a vast number of foreign troops in his country was alienating the population and buttressing the Taliban.

President Karzai's attack has led to bitter resentment among Western officials while, at the same time, attracting attention to the intrinsic contradictions in Nato's Afghan strategy.

The Afghan leader is accused of undermining the very forces which are keeping his government — viewed as mired in corruption by the international community — in power at a time when Western soldiers have suffered their highest losses of the war in a month.

General David Petraeus, the US commander of Nato forces whose strategy is the target of Mr Karzai's accusations, is “astonished and disappointed” and is said to be even feeling that the situation may make his position “untenable”.

Mr Karzai had said: “The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan.”

But in an assessment due next month, General Petraeus is expected to say that the withdrawal of US forces from July 2011, one of the stipulations US President Obama made when he authorised the surge of thousands of reinforcements, cannot take place on any major scale.

Mr Karzai will then have to accept the continuing presence of a large international force if General Petraeus is to continue to run the war in Afghanistan.

Speaking about the importance of the Lisbon summit for Afghanistan, the Nato Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said: “I can't say I agree with everything President Karzai has stated on all issues but we also have to accept that he is the elected president of the country and of course he can express his views as he wishes.”

But Mr Rasmussen immediately added that there was no alternative to fighting to bring insurgents to peace talks.

He said: “I consider it of utmost importance to continue our military operations because the fact is it is the increasing military pressure on the Taliban and the Taliban leadership that has stimulated the reconciliation talks.”

A previous Nato meeting at the Estonian capital, Tallinn, had envisaged that some Afghan provinces would be handed over to the control of the Karzai government by the end of the year.

A different timeline is due to be given in Lisbon with areas, rather than whole provinces, being handed over to Afghan control starting next year.

The programme is expected to begin with the relatively quiet areas in the north and the west of the country.

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