By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008
UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 3 -- Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Wednesday that widely divergent U.S. and U.N. estimates of the death toll from American airstrikes in Afghanistan may reflect the difficulties of obtaining an accurate account in a war zone.
"I believe that there is a bit of a fog of war involved in some of these initial reports," Khalilzad said. "Sometimes initial reports can be wrong. And the best way to deal with it is to have the kind of investigation that we have proposed, which is U.S., coalition, plus the Afghan government, plus the United Nations."
The remarks provided the strongest expression of skepticism by a top U.S. official over conflicting assertions by the United Nations and the Afghan government on one side, which claimed that a U.S. airstrike in western Afghanistan two weeks ago killed 90 civilians, and the U.S. military on the other, which said five people died in the operation.
In his first public appearance in weeks, Khalilzad also defended himself against allegations that he had improperly provided "advice and help" to a Pakistani presidential candidate, Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari, the husband of assassinated former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, is seeking to replace Pervez Musharraf as president. The United States is officially neutral in the race.
Richard A. Boucher, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asia, scolded Khalilzad in a recent e-mail when Zardari informed him of his plans to meet with Khalilzad in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Boucher said Zardari told him Khalilzad had provided him with "advice and help." The contents of the e-mail were first reported by the New York Times.
The Afghan-born Khalilzad, who again denied rumors that he intends to run for president of Afghanistan and wishes to undermine Afghan President Hamid Karzai, emphasized that he has a long-standing personal friendship with the Bhutto family and that he has spoken to Zardari six or seven times since the family returned to Pakistan to reenter politics.
"No, I've not offered him any political advice," Khalilzad told reporters. He said communications with Zardari "have been social contacts, for the most part. It has been 'How are you?' . . . 'When can we get together?' "
The U.S. envoy said that he has an extensive network of friendships with influential figures in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. "Those contacts and relationships have been useful for the United States," he said.
"I have many contacts and friends around the world," Khalilzad said. "And just because I am a government official now doesn't mean that I should end those friendships and relationships."
Khalilzad said that he is an experienced enough diplomat to know "the difference between being a channel with these friends on behalf of the United States or having social contacts."
He said that Zardari has only raised substantive political issues in one or two conversations with him and that he reported the substance of those discussions to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials.
"I'm also aware of the phone being an unreliable, untrustworthy instrument for communicating, in terms of security," Khalilzad said. "So I wouldn't see somebody as experienced as myself offering advice to a friend on an open line, on behalf of the United States. . . . You'll have to give me a little more credit than that."