Updated March 11, 2013, 1:22 p.m. ET
By DION NISSENBAUM and YAROSLAV TROFIMOV
KABUL—America’s fraught ties with Afghanistan suffered a jarring blow Sunday, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai said during a visit by the new U.S. defense secretary that the Taliban were killing Afghan civilians “in service to America.”
The remarks, in a televised speech hours before Mr. Karzai’s meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, capped a series of confrontations between the Afghan president and the U.S. over his demands to assert Afghan sovereignty and curtail American military operations.
Mr. Karzai met Mr. Hagel a day after suspected Taliban suicide bombers killed at least 18 people at the Ministry of Defense in Kabul and in the eastern province of Khost.
In his address, Mr. Karzai said the U.S. doesn’t want to leave the country after the NATO coalition’s mandate expires at the end of 2014 because it covets Afghan resources and is talking with Taliban leaders behind his back.
“Taliban are every day in talks with America, but in Kabul and Khost they set off bombs to show strength to America,” Mr. Karzai said. “The bombs that went off in Kabul and Khost yesterday were not a show of power to America, but were in service to America…It was in the service of foreigners not withdrawing from Afghanistan.”
U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, who took command of coalition forces last month, called Mr. Karzai’s charges “categorically false.”
“We have fought too hard over the past 12 years, we have shed too much blood over the last 12 years, we have done too much to help the Afghan security forces grow over the last 12 years to ever think that violence or instability would ever be to our advantage,” he said.
Mr. Karzai’s remarks blindsided American officials who had hoped to use Mr. Hagel’s two-day visit, his first overseas trip as defense secretary, to shore up fragile relations with the Afghan president as the U.S. ends its longest foreign war.
Though most of the 66,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan are slated to go home next year, the U.S. hopes to leave behind an advisory and counterterrorism force that would support the Afghan government after 2014.
European Pressphoto AgencyAfghan President Hamid Karzai said in a speech Sunday recent Taliban attacks were ‘in service to America.’
American defense officials now have to assess how much damage Mr. Karzai’s allegations will have on their plans, already threatened by discord over whether to grant immunity from prosecution to U.S. troops and by the Afghan leader’s refusal to negotiate with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The war against the Taliban has claimed the lives of 2,179 American service members since 2001, says the casualty tracking website icasualties.org. While the U.S. has held talks with the Taliban in the past, contacts were stalled by the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate directly with Kabul.
Mr. Karzai’s speech on Sunday sparked some frank exchanges during Mr. Karzai’s dinner at the presidential palace with Mr. Hagel, Gen. Dunford and other officials from both nations, U.S. officials said. Mr. Hagel “struck the right balance between expressing support for Afghanistan and strongly pushing back on wildly inaccurate claims,” one U.S. official said.
After the dinner, Mr. Hagel offered a muted public response to Mr. Karzai’s comments that came in contrast to the forceful defense from Gen. Dunford. “I told the president it was not true that the United States was unilaterally working with the Taliban,” Mr. Hagel told reporters.
The defense secretary suggested that the Afghan president might have been baiting America to cultivate support from anti-Western forces in the politically fractured country. Mr. Karzai’s term expires next year, and the field of potential successors is wide open, ranging from his brother and other allies to bitter political foes. “I was once a politician, so I can understand the kind of pressures that especially leaders of countries are always under, so I would hope that, again, we can move forward—and I have confidence that we will,” Mr. Hagel said.
The Afghan president’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said the Afghan leader used the occasion to complain about civilian casualties of U.S. operations and the detentions of Afghan citizens.
In particular, Mr. Faizi said, Mr. Karzai raised the issue of an engineering student who, he said, had been seized illegally at Kandahar University by an Afghan militia working for the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Karzai mentioned in his speech that he was up until as late as midnight on Saturday to win the student’s release; on Sunday, he issued a decree banning foreign forces from entering universities and detaining Afghan students.
The CIA declined to comment on the matter.
“Such incidents, if they continue, are a clear breach of Afghan national sovereignty, and will create anger among the people,” Mr. Faizi said. “Any kind of bilateral relations should be based on respect of sovereignty of the two nations.”
Mr. Karzai gained power following the U.S. ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001, and initially enjoyed close ties with the U.S., holding weekly videoconference calls with President George W. Bush.
These relations deteriorated during the 2009 Afghan presidential elections, after which Mr. Karzai accused some Obama administration officials of scheming to oust him.
In previous statements, Mr. Karzai also alleged that the U.S. was secretly flying insurgents into northern Afghanistan in helicopters, as part of a plan to destabilize the country, and once even threatened to join the Taliban himself.
Mr. Karzai and Mr. Hagel have a strained personal history. In 2008, Mr. Hagel joined fellow Senators Joe Biden and John Kerry for a turbulent dinner in which they pressed the Afghan president to seriously tackle corruption in his government. When Mr. Karzai dismissed the concerns as unfounded, Mr. Biden stormed out of the meeting, throwing down his napkin.
Mr. Hagel’s restrained comments on the Afghan president Sunday suggested that U.S. leaders recognize that they need Mr. Karzai’s cooperation to complete the withdrawal of U.S. troops and equipment. Military analysts said Mr. Karzai might be trying to challenge Mr. Hagel, who has orders from President Barack Obama to quickly end the war.
“President Karzai has a history of testing new [coalition] commanders to see what the response is to his demands,” said Kimberly Kagan, founder of the Institute for the Study of War who has consulted with the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have envisaged that NATO allies would make up a large part of the residual force after 2014. Mr. Karzai, however, on Sunday reiterated his opposition to any deal with NATO as a whole, saying nations wanting to keep troops here would need to negotiate directly with Kabul.
“If you want to stay beyond 2014, all of you separately need to sign agreements with the Afghan people,” Mr. Karzai said Sunday. “Limited numbers, in a location we chose and under our conditions and framework, with respect for our laws, our sovereignty, our traditions and culture.”
Few, if any, Western allies would consider contributing troops outside the NATO framework, diplomats say. “They want us out, that is for sure,” a Western official said. “They feel that we are part of the problem.”
Despite these tensions, Gen. Dunford defended U.S.-Afghan relations, especially between military leaders of the two countries, as dynamic partnerships that can be the “shock absorbers” through turbulent times. “We don’t have a broken relationship,” he said. “We don’t have a lack of trust. We have a relationship that can actually absorb this tension as we work through difficult issues.”
But Mr. Karzai’s Sunday speech was only one such shock to the relationship. It followed the U.S.’s abrupt cancellation of its planned handover of the main U.S. detention facility at Bagram Air Field, and Mr. Karzai’s demand that U.S. Special Operations forces leave the strategic province of Wardak near Kabul.
Following Mr. Karzai’s speech, Mr. Hagel also canceled a planned joint news conference with the Afghan leader at the presidential palace. U.S. officials said this was because of security concerns that rippled across Kabul in the wake of Saturday’s bombings.
U.S. bases in the capital were on heightened alert. Mr. Hagel previously canceled scheduled visits to the Ministry of Defense—site of Saturday’s Kabul bombing—and the Interior Ministry. Instead, he met with the two ministers at alternative locations in the city.
—Habib Khan Totakhil, Julian E. Barnes and Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.
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