ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai leveled particularly harsh accusations against the United States on Sunday, suggesting the Americans and the Taliban had a common goal in destabilizing his country. The comments cast a shadow on the first visit by Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.
The Afghan president’s discontent with his U.S. allies has been a recurring theme over the past 10 years. Still, his condemnation now, at a critical moment for talks under way on the shape and scope of any U.S. military presence here past 2014, has raised new questions about the two countries’ abilities to bridge intensifying differences.
In recent days, Mr. Karzai has been the most critical about some of the policies that U.S. officials have described as most important to their mission here, including the widespread use of Special Operations forces and a continuing say in how battlefield detainees are vetted and released.
He has seized on both as violations of Afghan sovereignty, banning U.S. commandos from Wardak province and bristling at key terms in a negotiated agreement on Bagram Prison.
A result was a last-minute refusal by U.S. officials on Saturday to hand the Afghan government full control of the prison.
After the cancellation of a joint news conference on Sunday, Mr. Hagel and Mr. Karzai met for private discussions and dinner. Later, Mr. Hagel said the two had had “a very direct conversation.”
Among Mr. Karzai’s critical comments on Sunday, which came at an early-morning news conference in honor of Women’s Day in Afghanistan, he charged that the U.S. government and the Taliban, while using different means, had in effect colluded to keep Afghanistan unstable to justify a continued U.S. military presence.
Amid the negotiations over a post-2014 U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Mr. Karzai has been notably critical about what he sees as doom-saying reports by Western officials and advocacy groups about Afghanistan’s future. He described such reports as propaganda, promulgated through the Western news media and picked up by local Afghan media, with the goal of undermining Afghan confidence and, by extension, faith in his government.
Further, he accused the United States of sending contradictory messages about its views of the Taliban: on the one hand claiming to see them as the enemy but at the same time reaching out to them to engage in negotiations, a process that Mr. Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said was still going on.
The Americans insist, however, that they are no longer in negotiations with the Taliban and have ceded their role to Mr. Karzai's government if talks are ever started. Regardless, many Afghans express confusion about the Americans’ true intentions.
“On the one hand the Taliban are talking with the Americans, but on the other hand they carry out a bombing in Kabul,” Mr. Karzai said, referring to a bomb that exploded Saturday in front of the Defense Ministry.
“[Saturday’s] bombings in Kabul and Khost didn’t aim to show Taliban’s strength — indeed, they served America. By those bombings they served the 2014 negative slogan,” he said.
“These bombings aimed to prolong the presence of the American forces in Afghanistan.”
Before the meeting between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Hagel, the new international military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., insisted that the two countries were still getting along.
His view was echoed by Mr. Faizi, who said Mr. Hagel and General Dunford had been responsive. “They understand our concerns, and Hagel noted that both sides should learn from their mistakes,” Mr. Faizi said.
General Dunford, however, contested Mr. Karzai’s claim that the Americans were working at cross-purposes with the Afghan government and benefiting in any way from Taliban violence.
“We have fought too hard over the past 12 years, we have shed too much blood over the past 12 years, we have done too much to help the Afghan security forces grow over the past 12 years to ever think that violence or instability would be to our advantage,” General Dunford told reporters traveling with Mr. Hagel.
Afghan analysts on Sunday pointed out that the immediate backdrop to Mr. Karzai’s anger was the cancellation of the Bagram prison handover, which humiliated him after he had announced to the Parliament in his inaugural address in January that Afghans were on the verge of taking control of Bagram’s detention operations.
“His prestige as president was degraded in the eyes of the public by the Americans’ refusal to hand over responsibility of the prison to the Afghans,” said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a former Afghan army general and a military analyst. “I think it drives him crazy when he sees it’s not happening.”
Mr. Amarkhel added: “It also shows a deep sense of distrust between two onetime allies. To the public, it means all the power is with foreigners.”
Further, Mr. Karzai’s comments were directed as much at Afghans as at the West; among them are his fellow Pashtuns, who have been in areas where foreign troops and night raids, which are widely disliked, have been commonplace. Most recently, he has also been trying to bring the Taliban to the table for a peace deal, said Mohammed Natiqi, a political analyst in Kabul.
“He has realized that Taliban will play an important role in the post-2014 Afghanistan,” Mr. Natiqi said. “And by banning night raids, airstrikes, and criticizing Americans and NATO forces, President Karzai is trying to win over the Taliban and other insurgent groups.”