South Asia

US chief Petraeus vows to protect Afghan civilians

The new chief of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan has vowed to protect Afghan civilians when he takes up his post.

Gen David Petraeus has been briefing allies and partners at Nato HQ in Brussels before heading to Kabul.

The general said he had no plans to change current rules of engagement, which limit some uses of force to prevent civilian casualties.

However, he said he would look into the application of the rules, which critics say put US troops in danger.

Gen Petraeus said there there were concerns among commanders on the ground that some of the processes were "too bureaucratic".

The general was unanimously confirmed in the post by the US Senate on Wednesday.

He replaces Gen Stanley McChrystal, who was removed after he and his aides mocked and criticised senior US officials in a magazine article.

Gen Petraeus paid tribute to his predecessor after the briefing, saying Gen McChrystal had made an "enormous contribution".

Allies 'not consulted'

Gen Petraeus met Nato's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and addressed the alliance's top decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council.

Mr Rasmussen said the general, the mission and the current strategy had Nato's "full support".

He said the plan remained the same - to take the fight to the Taliban, and allow the Afghan security forces to take responsibility in their own country.

Gen Petraeus addressed the key question of rules of engagement. He had said at his Senate hearings that he would reassess them.

Some US troops believed the rules, aimed at cutting civilian casualties, put them at too great a risk.

But Gen Petraeus insisted the rules would not be changed, only that he would look at their application because he had "a moral imperative to bring all force to bear when our troops are in a tough position".

Civilian deaths have been one of the major difficulties in the relationship between Nato forces and the Afghan government.

At the briefing, Gen Petraeus also called for Nato unity, which he described as "linking arms and making our way together".

He said he was a "Nato guy through and through".

Taliban claim upper hand

Shortly before the briefing, Gen Petraeus's new challenge was brought into focus when a key spokesman for the Afghan Taliban leadership said there was no question of entering into any kind of negotiations with Nato forces.

"We are certain that we are winning," Zabiullah Mujahedd said in a statement to the BBC's John Simpson, through an intermediary.

"Why should we talk if we have the upper hand, and the foreign troops are considering withdrawal, and there are differences in the ranks of our enemies?"

The top United Nations envoy in Afghanistan, Steffan de Mistura, said the Taliban statement was "in the opposite direction" to many other recent signals, and could be part of a pre-negotiation strategy of creating perceptions, building up pressure and increasing military attacks.

"I think they know very well that this conflict will not be won militarily - not by them and not by anyone else, and that the only solution is a political one. So they are pre-positioning themselves and one can understand that this is a typical strategy," he told the BBC.

"Bottom line: the end of this will be dialogue with them, and those that want to discuss it."

Mr De Mistura said he believed internal Afghan discussions involving the Taliban and other groups currently outside the political process were already under way.

Author and analyst Ahmed Rashid says the Taliban statement comes amid disarray in the Western alliance over policy and personnel.

"I don't think we can go along with just one statement," he told the BBC from Lahore in Pakistan.

"We should look at what they've been saying over the past year, which has been much more conciliatory than they've ever been before."

'Spectators'

BBC defence correspondent Nick Childs says the allies have largely been spectators in the drama of Gen McChrystal's sudden departure and his replacement by Gen Petraeus.

Some alliance diplomats have said their nations were not consulted over the change and Gen Petraeus needed to address strains with some allies who were questioning their deployment of troops.

The Dutch will withdraw troops from August and Canada's force is set to return home next year.

Speaking on Thursday, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said he would be "very surprised" if Afghan forces had not taken control of their own security from international forces by 2014.