Karzai clarifies remarks that sparked White House 'concern' in call to Clinton

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 3, 2010

KABUL -- A day after Afghan President Hamid Karzai railed against the foreign presence in his country, the White House said Friday that his remarks were cause for "genuine concern," in an exchange that has undercut the political benefits this week of President Obama's first visit to Afghanistan as commander in chief.

In his speech to a group of Afghan election officials here, Karzai accused the United Nations of orchestrating electoral fraud and said foreigners were intentionally undermining his government. His remarks raised questions about whether his planned visit to Washington would proceed and prompted him to make an explanatory phone call Friday to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry also met with Karzai "to clarify what he meant by those remarks," according to State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley.

Clinton and Karzai spoke about 12:30 p.m. Eastern time in a "cordial environment," according to Karzai's spokesman, Wahid Omar, who said the Afghan leader emphasized the need for "renewed cooperation and partnership." Omar said that some aspects of Karzai's speech had been "misinterpreted," but he did not disavow the president's remarks.

"There were no apologies," Omar said. "He said that the partnership requires utmost sensitivity to the concerns and aspirations of the Afghan people. "

A senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a diplomatic exchange described Karzai's conversation with Clinton as "constructive" and said Karzai "expressed surprise that his comments had created what he called 'a stir.' "

"They reached a good understanding at the end of the call," which lasted 25 minutes, the official said. "We're moving on and focused on the work ahead."

"It was instructive that he called," the official added. "He understood his comments had had a broader impact than he probably intended."

Karzai's speech came four days after Obama's visit to Afghanistan. In it, he described at length the chaos surrounding the Aug. 20 election, in which a U.N.-led commission stripped him of nearly one-third of his votes, citing fraud. He squarely blamed the United Nations, including the mission's former No. 2, Peter Galbraith, for conspiring against him, saying the foreigners wanted a "puppet government."

The accusation that the international community was behind the irregularities in the Afghan election was "preposterous," Crowley said. But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that Karzai's scheduled May 12 visit to Washington, which the White House considers something of a reward, was still on, "as of right now."

Afghan politicians also jumped into the fray Friday. Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second to Karzai in the elections, held a news conference to denounce the remarks. He said Karzai's erratic behavior is undermining the government's war against the Taliban and was "treason to the national interest."

"As a former colleague and doctor, I think this is beyond a normal attitude," Abdullah said.

Obama and Karzai had a tense exchange during their meeting here Sunday. Obama pressed Karzai to crack down on government corruption, ensure independently monitored elections and make plans for reintegrating Taliban fighters into Afghan society.

One of Obama's requests, that Karzai place two international members on the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, the body that investigates fraud, is a particularly sore subject for the Afghan leader. In February, alleging that the body had conspired against him, he issued a decree that gave him power to appoint its members, although he conceded the inclusion of two foreign members. The Afghan parliament's lower house voted Wednesday to reject that decree.

Also Friday, three German soldiers were killed when their detachment was attacked in the northern province of Kunduz, the German Defense Ministry said.

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.

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