The president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has urged the West to develop a new strategy for his country, warning that more troops will not necessarily improve security. Military operations are no longer enough, he said as the deaths of British and coalition soldiers in Afghanistan reached their highest monthly total of the eight-year war. We have to rethink the way we do things without that there wont be any improvement. Karzai called for negotiations with the Taliban. Even Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, should be encouraged to attend talks, he said. Speaking yesterday in an office so heavily secured that journalists are no longer allowed to take in pens or lipstick, the president expressed his sorrow at the mounting toll of British troops but cast doubt on the value of sending more. American soldiers have been pouring into Afghanistan over the past few months as the United States more than doubles its strength from 32,000 to 68,000 this year, along with 36,000 troops from other western allies. This is partly to secure the country for the elections next month, yet the situation continues to worsen. I dont think the increase in troops will address the problem, Karzai said. We need to concentrate on finding other avenues of defeating terrorism and seeking peace. We must engage in negotiations, bring back those Taliban who are willing to return, who have been driven out by fear and coercion and the mistakes weve all made. They are part of this country and must be called back. He said he welcomed a speech last week by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, in which she held out an olive branch to Taliban militants who renounce violence. Weve been talking about this for years but didnt have enough support or understanding from our allies, he said. I see in the new administration a lot more willingness to engage in peace talks. The Saudi government has already hosted some tentative negotiations. Karzai promised that, if re-elected as president, he would make talks with the Taliban and other militant groups, such as Hezb Islami, his priority. If Mullah Omar wants to come and talk, hes welcome its a desire we have and we should try for it, he said. Without a sincere peace process on all sides, matters will only get worse. So far this month 46 foreign soldiers have been killed, 16 of them British. We dont want British mothers finding their 18-year-old sons coming home in coffins, Karzai said. Were very sorry about what has happened in Helmand. He said he had spoken twice to Gordon Brown in the past week. The second occasion was on Friday, when Brown telephoned to ask for more Afghan forces to enter the fray. Hes right about that, said Karzai. We also want more of our own forces to be present on the ground, to provide protection and security. Ive promised to do whatever I can to increase Afghan forces. Ive also requested the UK and others to provide speedier training to Afghan forces. He has called a meeting with his defence minister today to discuss numbers. A lot of Afghan and British lives have been lost in the past few years, for which we are sorry, he said. Were willing to give the UK all the help it needs to reduce casualties and bring back the trust thats needed. Karzais relations with Britain have soured since UK troops went into Helmand in 2006. Britains insistence that he sack the provincial governor, an alleged drug lord, before it sent in troops still rankles with him. When Mullah Sher Akhundzada was governor, Helmand had 180,000 boys and girls going to school, he said. Today what do we have? With all those troops, Helmand has four times more drug production, no boys and girls going to school. Were fighting a war and we just lost eight British soldiers in one day. He said that his discussions with Brown had improved matters. I dont want to reopen the debate on what was not done right, he said. I want to bring a new debate of how to do it right. Karzais biggest complaint about the international forces is over civilian casualties, particularly after an incident in Azizabad last summer when 90 villagers, including women and children, were killed in error. To go and bomb a village and cause so many casualties was not only unwise but totally out of their minds, he said. Afghan people want the international community to stay here but that contract has to be renewed and certain issues corrected.He said he was pleased with an operation by 4,000 US marines in Helmand, which had so far not used airstrikes. Im glad they have now agreed to be more careful, he said. It is hard to find anyone with a good word to say about Karzais government, which has become a byword for corruption. Yet most diplomats expect him to win the elections on August 20, partly because his opposition is so divided there are 41 candidates and partly because of some canny negotiating. He has brought on board a number of potential rivals. To the horror of many in the international community, his slate includes warlords such as Marshal Mohammad Fahim and General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Both have received US support in the fight to oust the Taliban. But Dostum is a whisky-drinking Uzbek who has been known to rip his enemies in two by strapping them to tanks moving in opposite directions. Karzai insisted that he would emerge the victor if the election was free and fair. It seemed a strange remark from a man with all the resources of the government at his disposal. (Sunday Times)