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Afghan President Backs Obama's New War Plan

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KABUL — Afghanistan and Pakistan on Saturday praised the new U.S. strategy for dealing with growing violence in the two countries, with the Afghan president saying the plan to reconcile with moderate Taliban militants was better than expected and his Pakistani counterpart focusing on using development to fight extremism.

President Barack Obama announced the new strategy Friday with the hope of reversing the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, where violence has been increasing from Taliban militants who fled the 2001 U.S.-led invasion and have been launching cross-border attacks from sanctuaries in Pakistan.

The violence provides cover for al-Qaida operatives who Obama said are also holed up in Pakistan and planning attacks against the U.S. and other countries. The overarching goal of the new strategy is to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al-Qaida in the region by increasing civilian and military assistance on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.

But serious questions remain, including whether the new effort will convince Pakistan to crack down on militants operating in its territory and whether the U.S. and Afghanistan can agree on which Taliban fighters should be approached for reconciliation.

In addition to focusing on reconciliation Saturday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai praised pledges of increased and better-coordinated assistance to his country under the new U.S. plan and Obama's focus on countering militant sanctuaries in Pakistan.

"This is better than we were expecting as a matter of fact," Karzai told a news conference.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said billions of dollars in additional civilian aid will help his government fight extremism and promised he would not allow Pakistani territory to be used for terrorism _ though offered no new measures.

"The U.S. presidency's new approach represents a positive change," Zardari said in a speech to Parliament.

Karzai has long championed the idea of reconciliation with the Taliban as a key way to tamp down the growing insurgency in Afghanistan. The Bush administration generally opposed the idea, but Obama stressed reconciliation with more moderate elements of the Taliban on Friday.

"In a country with extreme poverty that has been at war for decades, there will also be no peace without reconciliation among former enemies," Obama said.

The reconciliation proposal is arguably the most novel part of the new plan, which is focused mostly on increasing the scale of ongoing initiatives _ promising 4,000 additional troops to train the Afghan army, hundreds more civilian specialists to help Afghanistan rebuild and $1.5 billion in annual civilian aid to Pakistan for the next five years.

"In this strategy, the most important issue is Taliban reconciliation and peace talks as President Obama mentioned in his speech," Karzai said.

Obama focused on reaching out to Taliban militants who have chosen to fight because they need the money or were coerced by others. However, he said there is "an uncompromising core of the Taliban" that must be met with force and defeated. The plan singles out Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and other top members.

The issue of who is targeted for reconciliation could become a source of friction between the U.S. and Afghanistan because Karzai has signaled a greater willingness to talk to hardcore militants _ even extending offers to the Taliban leader.

The issue of terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan has also created serious disputes in the region. The U.S. and Afghanistan have repeatedly urged Pakistan to crack down on militants in its territory. The Pakistani government says it is doing what it can and complains it is being made a scapegoat for the failures of Karzai and the West.

But many Afghan and Western officials suspect officers within the country's military spy agency of supporting the Taliban, which Pakistan helped bring to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the U.S. war effort in the region, said Friday that there were suspicions that Pakistani spies had warned militants about upcoming operations.

The Pakistan military on Saturday dismissed such allegations as "baseless." A statement said the country's commitment was evident from the deaths of hundreds of members of the security forces fighting extremist groups since 2001.

Obama said the U.S. would step up pressure on Pakistan by making aid to the country conditional on its anti-terrorism effort, though offered no details. He has also pledged to send an additional 17,000 combat troops to fight militants in southern and eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border.

Zardari said Saturday that Pakistan would deal "firmly" with groups defying the state but gave little indication of any new measures against terrorism.

Pakistan's respected Dawn newspaper said the country's army may bridle at the conditions attached to the expanded aid.

"The more transactional the U.S.-Pak relationship continues to look, the less the security establishment here may be inclined to cooperate," it said in an editorial.

Afghan and international forces have stepped up their operations in southern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, the center of the Taliban insurgency.

Troops and police killed 28 militants in several provinces in southern Afghanistan on Friday, officials said.

Janet Gul, an Afghan farmer living on the front lines in southern Kandahar province, said he was worried about the increased violence that would follow the deployment of additional U.S. troops to southern Afghanistan.

"They should negotiate with the Taliban and find the way for peace," Gul said.

Across the border in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, 26-year-old schoolteacher Saeed Khan, echoed Gul's frustration with war and said focusing on development was the way to go.

"Had America and Pakistan used half the sum spent on military action for development, issues like extremism and terrorism could have been solved much earlier," Khan said.

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Associated Press writers Fisnik Abrashi and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Stephen Graham in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.