KABUL — President Barack Obama's national security adviser insisted Tuesday that the U.S. does not support or oppose any candidate in Afghanistan's presidential race, but the Afghan government's top spokesman said the U.S. may be interfering.
President Hamid Karzai is believed to be the favorite in the Aug. 20 vote, though many Afghans and international officials have criticized his performance. Obama's administration in its early days called Karzai's government inefficient and corrupt, but U.S. officials have toned down criticism of a leader who may win a second five-year term.
Gen. James Jones, the U.S. national security adviser, met with Karzai and three leading opposition candidates Tuesday. Jones said America "neither supports nor opposes any legitimate candidate" and is interested in creating a level playing field for all.
"Our sole interest is in supporting stability, security and the constitutional government of Afghanistan to which we are contributing significant assistance," Jones said during a visit to the country's Independent Electoral Commission.
Karzai's spokesman, meanwhile, charged that U.S. officials could be taking the strategy too far by meeting with candidates, saying that the U.S. does not have the right to interfere in the political process by consulting with politicians about their political platforms.
"If these meetings are to express views on the candidate's platform, or confirm the platform of some candidates, that would be a clear violation of national sovereignty and we see that as an interference," spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said at a news conference.
If the meetings are for the "betterment of the election process," the Afghan government has no problem with that, Hamidzada said. Any such meetings should be arranged through the Afghan foreign ministry, he said.
Jones first visited Karzai at the presidential palace and later held a joint meeting with the three top opposition candidates: Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister; Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister; and Mirwais Yasini, a deputy speaker of parliament.
Journalists were invited to take pictures and video at the meeting with the opposition leaders, which took place inside the U.S. Embassy.
"It is our policy to make sure that to the greatest extent possible voters in Afghanistan have the access to the candidates and the candidates have an opportunity to express their views and to be heard," Jones said. "This is consistent with the way the United States deals with the other governments who have democratic elections."
He called the elections "key milestones in Afghanistan's democracy" and called on the government and its international partners to create conditions for a free and fair vote.
Thousands of newly deployed U.S. and NATO troops will help provide security for the election. Afghan officials are studying how to carry out voting in at least 10 rural districts where the government has no control.
Jones is traveling to Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss the Obama administration's revamped strategy for the volatile region. He will also stop in India.
In the latest violence Tuesday, three German soldiers German troops were killed in a firefight with insurgents in Kunduz province, the German Defense Ministry said.
In central Afghanistan, a suicide car bomber attacked a convoy of international troops in central Ghazni province, said governor's spokesman Ismail Jahangir. Two civilians were killed.
Meanwhile, a roadside bomb killed three employees of an Afghan nonprofit group working with the U.N. to deliver assistance in northern Jowzjan province. Their vehicle hit the bomb while they were heading to a project site, said Nader Farhad, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, which was working with the group Development and Humanitarian Services for Afghanistan.
Three police were killed in Kandahar province when their patrol vehicle hit a roadside bomb, said Kandahar police chief Matiullah Khan.
Meanwhile, NATO forces said they had successfully taken control of a Taliban stronghold through a major air operation in southern Helmand province. More than 500 troops were involved in the offensive, which started June 19 and continued through Monday.
NATO forces said in a statement that the goal of the strike had been to secure a number of canal and river crossings to establish a permanent NATO presence in the area and make it possible for residents to vote in August elections.
The statement says "a number of insurgents" were killed, but it did not give an exact figure.