U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets privately with Afghan President… (Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo / AFP/Getty…)
KABUL, Afghanistan — The often-volatile U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai grew increasingly strained Sunday as Karzai accused the United States and Taliban insurgents of having a secret understanding to foment violence as a pretext to keep foreign troops in Afghanistan.
The comments were the latest — and perhaps the most baffling — broadside by the mercurial Afghan leader against one of his nation's closest allies, leaving U.S. officials privately fuming and publicly struggling to limit the fallout.
The comments came hours before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in Kabul on his first visit since taking office, was scheduled to hold a joint news conference with Karzai at the presidential palace. The news conference was canceled, a move that U.S. officials said was due not to Karzai's inflammatory remarks but to security concerns.
In a speech in Kabul to commemorate International Women's Day, Karzai said that the bombings carried out a day earlier by the Taliban in the capital and eastern province of Khowst, killing 18, "were not to show [the insurgents'] power but to serve the United States." Speaking in the Dari language, he added that the bombings were intended "to pave the way for foreigners not to leave, but to stay."
He claimed that U.S. officials were meeting with the Taliban "every day," an apparent reference to Taliban representatives opening an office in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar as a precursor to possible peace talks with Kabul. U.S. officials denied direct contacts with the militants.
U.S. officials said they had no explanation for Karzai's statements, but several speculated that it was a reflection of the anxiety he and many Afghans feel about the future as the United States prepares to pull out most of its troops by next year.
"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 Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., commander of the U.S.-led military coalition.
"It's categorically false. We have no reason to be colluding with the Taliban."
Others speculated that Karzai was spinning an elaborate conspiracy to explain why his country remains racked by violence after nearly a dozen years of war and to shift responsibility for his government's failures as he faces an end to his second term next year. Another suggestion was that he was attempting to assert authority over the Western powers he accuses of compromising his nation's sovereignty while turning the tables on the Taliban, which has long accused him of being a lackey to his Washington backers.
Karzai often uses inflammatory rhetoric in his public statements, sometimes leaving observers mystified as to whether he really believes his own words. In the past he has referred to the Taliban as his "brothers" and accused Western countries of invading Afghanistan to steal its resources.
The comments further marred Hagel's visit, which got off to a rocky start Saturday with the twin bombings. Despite the cancellation of the joint news conference with Karzai, Hagel went ahead with a private meeting and dinner with the Afghan leader at the palace.
Speaking to reporters later, Hagel said he brought up the comments at the dinner.
"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 he found it astonishing that Karzai would question U.S. motives after 11 years of costly war, Hagel said, "I addressed that question rather directly."
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said the news conference with Karzai and Hagel "was not canceled because of the president's recent comments." Hagel's scheduled meetings with the Afghan ministers of defense and interior at their offices were moved to a different site because of the security concerns, the U.S. officials said.
"We believe we can continue to have a productive relationship with President Karzai," said a senior U.S. official. "We have indicated to him in private that public criticism is unhelpful to the partnership, especially when there is no basis to the claims."
With barely one year left before an election is due to select his successor, Karzai may also be angry at the stalled peace process and lashing out at the United States for not pressuring Taliban sponsors in Pakistan to do more to revive the talks.
In an effort to ease Karzai's concerns about a U.S. sellout, Washington has said it has had no direct contacts with Taliban officials since they suspended talks with the U.S. in March 2012 — and that any political settlement would have to be between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
"We've long supported an Afghan-led process for Afghans to talk to Afghans," said David Snepp, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. "It's up to the Taliban to take the next steps. They know what they need to do."