Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during an event commemorating International… (S. Sabawoon / EPA )
KABUL, Afghanistan — The often-volatile U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai grew increasingly strained Sunday as Karzai accused the U.S. 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 speech but to security concerns.
In a speech in Kabul to commemorate International Women’s Day, Karzai said that the deadly bombings carried out a day earlier by the Taliban in Kabul and the eastern Khost province, 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 Gulf nation of Qatar as a precursor to possible peace talks with Kabul. U.S. officials denied direct contacts with the Taliban.
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 U.S. 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., the 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 wracked with violence after nearly a dozen years of war and to shift responsibility for his own 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 United States and Western powers he accuses of compromising his nation’s sovereignty while turning the tables on the Taliban, who have long accused him of being a lackey of 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.
[Updated 11:27 a.m. March 10: Speaking to reporters 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 costly war, Hagel said, "I addressed that question rather directly."]
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said, however, that the news conference "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 also 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 is 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.