ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Afghan President Hamid Karzai has had a rocky relationship with foreign forces in Afghanistan. But his strident criticism this month of American troops, as well as his allegations that NATO and the Taliban are working together to destabilize the country, are surprisingly hostile, say political analysts.
For years, Karzai has tried to politically distance himself from international forces securing his country, apparently in an attempt to dispel criticism that he is a puppet of the U.S. government.
But his recent comments against Washington took many by surprise.
“America says Taliban is not my enemy and we do not have war with Taliban, but in the name of Taliban they are abusing people in Afghanistan on a daily basis,” Karzai said.
The Afghan leader later distanced himself from his provocative rhetoric, saying he had only been trying to correct the relationship.
According to analysts in Kabul, Karzai is frustrated by U.S. reluctance to hand over the last of its prisoners into Afghan custody, and by the pace of talks for Americans to leave eastern Wardak province, after reports of abuse at the hands of Afghans working with U.S. special forces there.
U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford said Wednesday they had reached an agreement to pull U.S. troops out of the province and replace them with Afghan security.
Karzai had also accused the international community of holding talks with the Taliban militants behind his back.
“Their [Taliban] leaders and representatives are talking with Americans outside Afghanistan on a daily basis," Karzai said. "We are aware of those talks, as the foreigners and patriotic Taliban are coming and telling us what they are talking on and asking us to be careful."
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen lashed out at Karzai's suggestion that international forces had some kind of secret understanding with the militants.
"I reject the idea that was publicly launched by President Karzai that one way or the other there is a so-called collusion between NATO, ISAF, US and the Taliban," he said. "It's an absolutely ridiculous idea.''
But presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi kept up the rhetoric this week, saying the Afghan people considered it "aimless and unwise" to continue the war on terror in their country, which they consider a failure and has cost thousands of innocent lives.
Kate Clark, senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, says the relationship between Karzai and Washington is often rocky, but appears to have hit a new low.
She says Karzai wants to assert his independence from the West as international forces prepare to leave in 2014, and that anti-foreigner speeches often go down well among the Afghan populace. And, she adds, he believes he can get away with it.
"I think President Karzai is very, very confident that the United States wants to stay in Afghanistan come hell or high water," Clark says, "and he thinks he can make what are actually very rude remarks and because of America's strategic interests as he sees them in Afghanistan, it will not be walking away."
Omar Samad, a former Afghan diplomat and the head of Silk Road Consulting, a political analysis group, says Karzai's words are partly the result of his frustration with the international forces' inability to bring peace to Afghanistan despite a decade of conflict.
But Karzai's nationalist rhetoric could cost him politically both with the already fatigued international community as well as at home.
"There is a political price to pay domestically in Afghanistan; we have seen very strong reaction from political as well as social groups over the last few days over the president hostile rhetoric," Samad says. "Afghans are very uncertain about the future at this time. Rhetoric makes it even more difficult."
Regardless of the Afghan leader's intentions, both analysts agreed that Karzai's remarks will do little to politically stabilize a country already facing considerable economic and security challenges.