WASHINGTON — Tensions between the White House and Hamid Karzai were running high Monday as the United States, hoping to bolster support at home for its escalating military effort, again scolded the Afghan president for his recent anti-West remarks.
In remarks to Afghan parliamentarians last week, Karzai accused the United States and other Western governments of wanting a “puppet government” in Afghanistan and alleged they engineered widespread fraud during last fall’s corrupt national elections.
In an interview with BBC television on Monday, Karzai didn’t back down, singling out Washington in particular despite a phone call late last week to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, assuring her he wasn’t referring specifically to the U.S. when he made the remarks.
“What I said about the election was all true,” Karzai said. “I won’t repeat it, but it was all true.”
When asked by the BBC reporter if he meant that it was the U.S. that carried out the fraud, Karzai replied: “That’s exactly what happened; I mentioned the elements who did it.”
The dust had barely settled last week over the electoral fraud allegation when Karzai dropped another bombshell, telling a number of Afghan members of parliament that if foreigners continued to meddle in Afghanistan, he’d be forced “to join the Taliban.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who said Karzai’s visit to Washington on May 12 was still going ahead “as of now,” called the latest comments disturbing.
“The remarks are genuinely troubling,” he said Monday. “On behalf of the American people, we’re frustrated by the remarks.”
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Karzai’s Taliban threat was especially vexing.
“That particular comment is a bit of a head-scratcher,” he said during the department’s daily briefing.
“These comments can undercut the kind of support that we think we need on all sides of this equation if we’re going to move forward. Clearly, you know, what he says does have an impact back here in the United States and he should choose his words carefully.”
Karzai attempted to explain himself on Monday on CNN.
“It’s just to make sure that we all understand as to where each one of us stands,” Karzai said.
“Afghanistan is the home of Afghans and we own this place. And our partners are here to help in a cause that’s all of us. We run this country, the Afghans.”
But the timing of his remarks sting, given the U.S. is determined to have a strong and dependable partner in Afghanistan in advance of an American-led campaign to wrest the volatile Kandahar province from the Taliban.
American and NATO troops, including hundreds of Canadian soldiers, are planning a mammoth military campaign in June to gain control of the province, the birthplace of the Taliban. As many as 10,000 U.S. troops will join Canadian forces in Kandahar in the weeks to come.
Obama paid an unannounced visit to Afghanistan late last month and urged Karzai to clean up corruption in Afghanistan. Military officials fear the Kandahar operation can’t succeed unless local government improves and Afghans begin to see the benefit of the NATO presence.
Although Obama’s tough talk apparently irked Karzai, he appeared Sunday in Kandahar province alongside American and NATO military officials. He promised tribal leaders he would stop the offensive if it didn’t have their support.
“If you are worried, then there won’t be an operation unless you are satisfied about it,” he told about 1,000 tribal leaders at a shura, or conference, at the governor’s compound in the southern province.
With Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, by his side, Karzai added: “In today’s speech, I am pointing the finger at myself,” suggesting his government needs to listen more attentively to Afghans.
U.S. military officials said they were happy with his appearance, aimed at easing fears in advance of the offensive.
“Karzai acknowledged he’s the commander in chief; that’s helpful,” Maj. Gen. William Mayville, NATO deputy chief of staff for operations, told the Associated Press after the meeting.
“You’ve got to have the community really wanting in, otherwise things are stalled. … Karzai’s convinced, he’s on board. We would not have had this (meeting) if he wasn’t convinced this is the right stuff.”
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently called the Kandahar offensive “the cornerstone of our surge effort and the key to shifting the momentum” in the nine-year-old war, comparing the campaign to stabilizing Baghdad during the war in Iraq.
But tribal leaders are nervous about the mission, fearful of more civilian casualties than usual in part because the campaign will take place during harvest season.
Another complicating factor is Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of Hamid Karzai and the head of Kandahar’s provincial council.
Western officials on the ground in Afghanistan have long suspected that Ahmed Wali Karzai is an organized crime kingpin and have urged his removal from the province.