White House troubled by Afghan leader's remarks

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010; 12:01 PM

KABUL -- President Obama's visit to Kabul last week, intended in part to forge a closer working relationship with President Hamid Karzai, has helped produce the opposite: an angry Afghan leader now attacking the West for what he perceives as an effort to manipulate him and weaken his rule.

Karzai's relationship with his U.S. backers in the past week has taken a sharp turn for the worse after his two anti-Western speeches in three days, remarks that some officials see as a rehearsed, intentional move away from the United States.

In remarks to parliament members Saturday, Karzai said that if foreign interference in his government continues, the Taliban would become a legitimate resistance -- one that he might even join, according to lawmakers present.

In a sign of the intensifying war of words with the Afghan leader, White House officials expressed dismay Monday over Karzai's weekend comments.

Karzai's threat to join the Taliban rather than bow to what he described as foreign interference came after an anti-Western rant late last week. Press secretary Robert Gibbs called Karzai's statements "genuinely troubling" but said the U.S. government would continue to work with Karzai and others in his government as they seek to secure the country.

Gibbs said, "It was disturbing on Friday. Obviously it didn't get any better."

Asked directly whether Obama still has faith in Karzai, Gibbs pointedly did not say yes. Instead, he repeated that U.S. officials would work with their Afghan counterparts.

"When I heard Karzai's remarks, it really shocked me. It scared me," said a senior Afghan official who works closely with Karzai. "We should not take this lightly. This is a golden opportunity to have the West here; we can't squander it."

Karzai's comments have angered U.S. officials and some of his prominent Afghan colleagues in the government, who fear he is jeopardizing international funding and military support because his pride has been injured.

Yet, the Afghan president sought to rally public support Sunday for a military operation in Kandahar, offering assurances to local officials and tribal leaders at a meeting also attended by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Mark Sedwill, NATO's top civilian representative. Karzai told the gathering that community leaders would be consulted before any offensive into Taliban areas, promising them that "there will be no military operation without your cooperation and consultation."

"That guy's erratic; he's unpredictable. I don't get him," said a senior U.S. military official in Kabul.

Obama's visit was far from the only aggravation for Karzai in a partnership that has simmered with mistrust since the Afghan leader narrowly won reelection last year. But it helped propel him to his new antagonistic stance, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

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