KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded Tuesday that the U.S.-led coalition stop all airstrikes on Afghan homes, drawing his government closer than ever to direct opposition to the American presence here.
The comments could complicate President Obama’s looming decision on how quickly to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Even for Western officials accustomed to Karzai’s rebukes, his latest remarks were cause for deep concern, because they went further than before in calling for radical change in how NATO fights its war.
Tuesday’s demand followed his earlier insistence that foreign forces end night raids, stop unilateral operations, and stay off roads and out of Afghan villages. With each call, Karzai has outlined in ever more stark lines a vision of a vastly less aggressive U.S. military posture against the Taliban. The stance is particularly risky for him politically because his government relies on NATO for its political and economic survival.
“I warn NATO forces that a repeat of airstrikes on the houses of Afghanistan’s people will not be allowed,” Karzai said at a news conference at the presidential palace. “The people of Afghanistan will not allow this to happen anymore, and there is no excuse for such strikes.”
He added that foreign forces are close to “the behavior of an occupation” and the “Afghan people know how to deal with that” — a thinly veiled threat that Afghans could rise up against NATO and drive them out as with past occupying armies. He said Afghanistan would be “forced to take unilateral action” if the bombardment of homes did not cease, although he did not specify what that action would be.
“History is a witness [to] how Afghanistan deals with occupiers,” he said.
Karzai lacks the authority to order NATO to stop airstrikes on homes. But his criticism strikes at a central weapon for U.S. military planners: Airstrikes have surged during the past year and numbered nearly 300 in April.
The immediate provocation for Karzai’s remarks was a U.S. military airstrike in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province that killed at least nine civilians, including children. But Karzai’s statement also was the culmination of years of complaints about civilian casualties and aggressive NATO military operations.
Some Western diplomats in Kabul who have worked closely with Karzai think these statements reflect his authentic beliefs and are not simply an attempt to score domestic political points. They say he is deeply frustrated by his inability as president to exert real authority over the foreign presence in Afghanistan.
The timing of Karzai’s remarks has compounded the political problem for U.S. policymakers. Obama will make a decision this month on how fast to begin withdrawing troops in July. Meanwhile, the United States and Afghanistan are negotiating the terms of their strategic partnership after 2014, at which point Afghan authorities are supposed to have assumed full responsibility for the nation’s security. Some U.S. officials said Karzai might be attempting to strengthen his position ahead of the arrival of a new U.S. military commander, Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, and a new U.S. ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker.