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Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited the southern city of Kandahar yesterday. He was there to rally support for�a military operation in a region that will target Taliban strongholds. Karzai's speech revealed some subtle changes in the way the authorities are viewing that operation. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.
COREY FLINTOFF: Hamid Karzai has a strong personal connection to Kandahar. He was born on the outskirts of the sprawling city and he's a member of the Pashtun ethnic group that makes up the majority in southern Afghanistan. He sought to exploit that connection on Sunday, swapping his trademark peaked cap for a Pashtun-style turban, to speak before a jirga - a gathering of several hundred tribal elders.
Before the president spoke, some men at the jirga were wary about supporting a military operation they feared could cause more civilian causalities. And they were suspicious of a government, that to many of them, typifies corruption.
Haji Naik Mohammed said, bluntly, that the president should start reforming his own government first.
Mr. HAJI NAIK MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: The elder says local officials in his district are involved in corruption, and if that doesn't change, the country can expect another 30 years of war.
But Haji Naik doesn't seem to blame Karzai directly. In fact, he says his message to the president is this, the Taliban is not your enemy, Mr. Karzai, your own officials are your enemies.
When President Karzai spoke, his message seemed aimed at that very concern. He called repeatedly on Taliban members to reconcile with the government. He promised to fight corruption among government officials, local power brokers and private security contractors. And finally, pounding on the podium, he called on the assembled men to stand up and join him.
President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: You are going to help us, he shouted, asking over and over for the elders' agreement that the operation was the right thing to do.
Many men did stand up and pledge support, although Karzai stressed that their backing would mean sacrifice.
Afterward, not everyone was convinced. Shah Mohammed, a farmer, says the problem is more complicated.
Mr. SHAH MOHAMMED (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: If you send someone to my district, he says, you'll see cruelties everywhere. People who oppose the power structure are killed, and local government authorities are working with the Taliban to keep the people under their control.
President Karzai's problem is typified by his own half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, one of the most powerful figures in Kandahar. Ahmed Wali Karzai has been repeatedly�accused of corruption�over the years charges he denies.
He told reporters after the speech that the president's denunciation of corruption was a good move, as was his decision to downplay the military aspect of the operation.
General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, accompanied President Karzai at the gathering, though he didn't speak to the elders.
Later, when asked whether he agreed with Karzai's seeming de-emphasis on a military victory against the Taliban, he said he believes that if the government attacks problems such as governance and corruption, the relevance of the Taliban is likely to fall significantly.
McChrystal and other top officials�have played down the military aspects�of the Kandahar operation in recent weeks, preferring to call it an ongoing process that includes reconciliation and rebuilding, rather than an offensive or a campaign.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Kabul.