THE top US general in Afghanistan has expressed dismay at remarks by president Hamid Karzai, who suggested that Washington benefited from Taleban attacks on his country.
Mr Karzai’s remarks, delivered yesterday during the first visit by new US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, further strained already fraught ties between Mr Karzai and the Western allies who are fighting to protect his government from insurgents.
Hours after Mr Karzai’s speech, a joint news conference was cancelled by US officials citing security concerns, although Afghan officials cited scheduling problems. The two men still planned to meet privately.
The US still has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from almost 100,000 two years ago at the height of a surge ordered by President Barack Obama. Washington intends to withdraw most of them by the end of next year but wants to negotiate a continued, smaller presence.
Speaking a day after two Taleban bomb attacks that killed 17 people, Mr Karzai said the bombings served Washington’s aim of trying to convince Afghans that US forces were needed.
“Those bombs that went off in Kabul and Khost were not a show of force to America. They were in service of America. It was in the service of the 2014 slogan to warn us if they [Americans] are not here then Taleban will come,” Mr Karzai said.
“In fact those bombs, set off yesterday in the name of the Taleban, were in the service of Americans to keep foreigners longer in Afghanistan,” he said in a speech.
Mr Karzai also said the Taleban and the United States had been holding talks in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar on a “daily basis”, further fuelling his suggestion that Washington and the militants were working at common purposes.
The militant group and Washington both denied they had resumed efforts on dialogue, which stalled a year ago.
Mr Karzai’s remarks drew a rebuke from General Joseph Dunford, the head of Nato forces in Afghanistan.
“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 last 12 years to ever think that violence or instability would be to our advantage,” he told reporters.
Of Mr Karzai’s remarks, he added: “I’ll let others judge whether that’s particularly helpful or not at the political level.”
Mr Karzai has a history of making inflammatory statements that exasperate Washington. His comments have become increasingly bitter as the withdrawal date has approached.
Mr Karzai’s government also alleged yesterday that US-led forces and Afghans working with them were abusing and arresting university students.
The United States helped install Mr Karzai in power in 2001 after driving the Taleban out of Kabul in a bombing campaign, in retaliation for the Taleban shielding al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Western troops have fought since then to help prevent the Taleban from returning, but many in Afghanistan resent the presence of foreign forces and question their aims.
The Taleban has for years demanded the withdrawal of foreign forces and have never suggested that they should stay.
The issue of US troop levels after most Nato combat troops withdraw by the end of 2014 will be one of the main subjects on the agenda at talks between Mr Karzai and Mr Hagel, who is making his first foreign trip as Pentagon chief.
Among many sources of friction, Mr Hagel’s visit coincides with the passing of a deadline imposed by Mr Karzai for US special forces to leave the province of Wardak, after Mr Karzai accused them of overseeing torture and killings in the area.
US forces have denied involvement in any abuses and a Nato official said on Saturday that US special forces were still operating in Wardak. Mr Hagel has sounded hopeful that a deal could be reached on their continued deployment.