News Analysis

Karzai taking a gamble with threat

US has no choice but to deal with the Afghan leader

BLAMING OUTSIDERS Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s has chafed under what he considers excessive global pressure. BLAMING OUTSIDERS
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s has chafed under what he considers excessive global pressure.
By Robert H. Reid
Associated Press / April 6, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai’s startling threat to join the Taliban if foreigners don’t stop meddling in Afghanistan and his strident criticism of the West’s role in his country have worsened relations with Washington at a time when the US military wants closer cooperation ahead of a crucial offensive this summer.

Karzai, who has been fuming for months about what he considers Washington’s heavy hand, is gambling that blaming outsiders for the troubles in a society with a long tradition of resisting occupation will bolster his stature at home — while carrying little risk because the United States has no choice but to deal with the mercurial leader.

Yet the strains are clear. They threaten President Obama’s strategy of working with a strong, reliable Afghan partner to turn back a resurgent Taliban.

“Troubling’’ is how White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described reports yesterday that Karzai threatened to abandon the political process and join the Taliban insurgency if the West keeps carping at him to reform his government.

“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,’’ State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

Karzai has long chafed under what he considers excessive international pressure.

His complaints escalated Thursday when he lashed out against the United Nations and the international community, accusing them of perpetrating a “vast fraud’’ in last year’s presidential polls as part of a conspiracy to deny him reelection or tarnish his victory — accusations the United States and the UN have denied.

Two days later, Karzai told a group of parliament members that if foreign interference in his government continues, the Taliban would become a legitimate resistance — one that he might even join, according to several lawmakers present.

“He said that ‘if I come under foreign pressure, I might join the Taliban,’ ’’ said Farooq Marenai, who represents the eastern province of Nangarhar. “He said rebellion’’ against a legitimate Afghan government “would change to resistance’’ against foreign occupation.

Two other parliament members gave the same account but asked that their names not be published to avoid problems with Karzai.

Calls to two Karzai spokesmen went unanswered.

Karzai told CNN yesterday that he has no intention of breaking with Washington, which is pouring 30,000 more troops into the fight against the Taliban.

“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.’’

The lawmakers agreed that the threat to join the Taliban did not appear serious but reflected Karzai’s anger over US and international pressure on several issues, including electoral reform, combating corruption, and contacts with Taliban insurgents.

Those differences were sharpened by Obama’s unannounced visit to Kabul on March 28. In advance of the trip, Obama’s national security adviser, James Jones, told reporters that Karzai needed once and for all to confront corruption and “be seized with how important that is.’’ Karzai’s advisers found the public tongue-lashing humiliating — especially coming from a guest.

At the same time, the United States and its partners have been urging Karzai to reform the electoral system to avoid the corruption that marked the Aug. 20 presidential balloting, when one-third of the president’s votes were thrown out by a UN-backed antifraud watchdog.

Karzai associates have said the president considers Western complaints of corruption a smoke screen to draw attention from the Afghans’ contention that most of the billions in international aid have been squandered by the donors themselves and not wasted by his government.

Karzai also has been frustrated by the reluctance of the United States to endorse negotiations with the Taliban leadership.

The Obama administration is keen to offer incentives to rank-and-file Taliban fighters to switch sides but believes negotiations with insurgent leaders are pointless as long as the insurgents believe they are winning.

Karzai’s remarks have raised concern among some parliament members, who fear he may overplay his hand by undercutting public support in the United States for the war.

The friction comes as the United States and NATO prepare for what could be the war’s most decisive offensive — a major bid to drive the Taliban from Kandahar, the biggest city in the south, the insurgents’ spiritual birthplace and the Karzai family’s hometown.

US commanders have said repeatedly that the operation cannot succeed without improvements in local governance to win over public support.

To do that, NATO needs the backing of Karzai, who is also chief of a tribe that lives in the Kandahar area.

Efforts to sideline ineffectual local leaders could put NATO in conflict with the interests of the Karzai family, including the president’s wheeler-dealer half brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, who heads the local provincial council.