Karzai Lashes Out at NATO Over Deaths
By Matthew Rosenberg and Helene Cooper, NY Times, March 16, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan—The last thing President Obama did before going to bed Thursday night was to call President Hamid Karzai, whose day was just getting started here.
The airwaves in Washington and Kabul had been flooded with Mr. Karzai’s surprise demand that the United States confine its troops in Afghanistan to major bases by next year—a move that could seriously disrupt American plans here. Mr. Obama sought to clarify exactly where the Afghan president stood.
The phone call between the two leaders seemed to go well, administration officials said. But hours later, after meeting with the families of the 16 Afghans killed this week in a shooting rampage attributed to an American soldier, Mr. Karzai lashed out again at the United States, saying he was at “the end of the rope” over the deaths of Afghan civilians at the hands of NATO forces. He reiterated his call to confine coalition forces to major bases and to speed up the handoff to Afghan troops. He also accused American officials of not cooperating with a delegation he had sent to investigate the killings in the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province, in southern Afghanistan.
The Afghan leader’s comments were expected to intensify the sense of crisis that has begun to permeate the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan in recent weeks. The two allies appear to be increasingly at odds over basic elements of the strategy to fight the Taliban, and widespread Afghan resentment at the presence of foreign troops appears to be intensifying amid a series of American missteps—from Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters to soldiers burning Korans.
The killings in Panjwai on Sunday have left both sides grasping for a way to stabilize the deteriorating relationship. Mr. Obama and other senior American officials have repeatedly apologized, but the expressions of regret have done little to placate angry Afghans, including Mr. Karzai.
A growing number of Afghans do not want coalition forces in their country. That is likely to make the American strategy, predicated on working with Afghans, increasingly difficult to execute.
Attacks by Afghan forces on their NATO counterparts are occurring at a rate that is alarming coalition commanders, raising questions about the future of the training mission, which American officials have envisioned as continuing into 2014 and possibly beyond.
Confining NATO forces to major bases by this time next year could solve that problem. But it would at the same time effectively end their ability to train Afghan soldiers by living and operating alongside them.
The other main element of the American plan, leaving a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan past 2014, may prove more difficult. Mr. Karzai strongly objects to the kinds of operations that such a force is likely to carry out—raids on villages at night, many under the cover of darkness—as he made clear in his comments on Friday.
Mr. Karzai’s opposition to the so-called night raids is longstanding. He says it violates Afghan culture to storm into a home at night, and many civilians have died in the raids, exacerbating the divide over the operations.
While American officials have emphasized that the Panjwai massacre was the work of a lone, rogue soldier, most Afghans see it as similar to the night raids, including Mr. Karzai, who on Friday portrayed it as the latest in a long string of episodes in which coalition forces have killed Afghans.
“This has been going on for too long. It is by all means the end of the rope here,” he said. “This form of activity, this behavior, cannot be tolerated. It’s past, past, past the time.”
In his comments, Mr. Karzai also questioned whether only a single American soldier was involved in the Panjwai massacre. He said the accounts of villagers—many of whom have said multiple soldiers took part in the shootings—did not match the American military’s assertion.
Still, Mr. Karzai emphasized that he wanted a good relationship with the United States, his chief foreign backer. But he insisted that it must be predicated on American respect for Afghan culture and laws.