Karzai accuses U.S. of colluding with Taliban
Afghan President Hamid Karzai ratcheted up his criticism of the United States on Sunday, marring a debut visit by new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and highlighting tensions that could undermine Washington's strategy to wind down the unpopular war.
A day after two Taliban bombings killed 18 people, Karzai accused the United States and the Taliban of colluding to convince Afghans that foreign forces were needed beyond 2014, when NATO is set to end its combat mission and most troops withdraw.
The bombings by the Taliban in Kabul and the eastern Khost province “were not to show (the insurgents') power, but to serve the United States,” Karzai said, adding that the bombings were intended “to pave the way for foreigners not to leave, but to stay.”
The comments were made hours before Hagel was scheduled to hold a news conference with Karzai at the presidential palace. The news conference was canceled because of security concerns, not because of Karzai's inflammatory speech, U.S. officials said.
Karzai claimed that U.S. officials were meeting with the Taliban “every day,” an apparent reference to Taliban representatives opening an office in the gulf nation of Qatar as a precursor to possible peace talks with Kabul. U.S. officials have denied direct contacts with the Taliban.
U.S. officials said they had no explanation for Karzai's statements, and the Taliban immediately denied that it had resumed talks with the United States.
“President Karzai has never said to me that the United States was colluding with the Taliban. I don't know what caused him to say that today,” said Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander of the U.S.-led military coalition.
“It's categorically false. We have no reason to be colluding with the Taliban.”
Karzai often uses inflammatory rhetoric in his public statements. He has referred to the Taliban as his “brothers” and accused Western countries of invading Afghanistan to steal its resources.
Hagel's visit got off to a rocky start on Saturday with the bombings. Despite the cancellation of the joint news conference with Karzai, Hagel went ahead with a private meeting and dinner with the Afghan leader in the palace.
Later, Hagel said he raised the comments in his dinner with Karzai.
“I told the president it was not true that the United States was unilaterally working with the Taliban and trying to negotiate anything,” Hagel said. Asked whether it was astonishing for Karzai to question U.S. motives after 11 years of war, Hagel said, “I addressed that question rather directly.”
The U.S.-Afghan relationship has grown increasingly testy since Karzai visited the White House in January, as the Afghan leader has issued a stream of decrees aimed at limiting the role of the U.S. military and its allies. Last month, his office ordered the United States to withdraw its special forces from Wardak province, claiming that the troops and Afghans working for them had tortured and kidnapped villagers, a charge the United States rejected.