Karzai’s criticism of American strategy irks U.S. general
KABUL, Afghanistan — Gen. David Petraeus, the coalition military commander in Afghanistan, warned Afghan officials yesterday that President Hamid Karzai’s latest public criticism of U.S. strategy threatens to seriously undermine progress in the war and risks making Petraeus’ position “untenable,” according to Afghan and American officials.
Officials said Petraeus expressed “astonishment and disappointment” with Karzai’s call, in a Saturday interview with The Washington Post, to “reduce military operations” and end U.S. Special Operations raids in southern Afghanistan that coalition officials said have killed or captured hundreds of Taliban commanders in recent months.
In a meeting yesterday morning with Ashraf Ghani, who leads the Afghan government’s planning on transition, Petraeus made what several officials described as “hypothetical” references to an inability to continue U.S. operations in the face of Karzai’s remarks.
The night raids are at the heart of Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy and are key to his hopes of being able to show significant progress when the White House reviews the situation in Afghanistan next month.
Officials discounted early reports yesterday that Petraeus had threatened to resign. But “for (Karzai) to go this way, and at that particular stage, is really undermining (Petraeus’) endeavors,” one foreign diplomat in Kabul said. “Not only his personally, but the international community.” Several officials in Washington discussed the issue on the condition of anonymity.
The weekend controversy occurred days before NATO leaders, including President Obama, are scheduled to hold a summit in Lisbon that will begin to set a timetable for transition — the process of turning portions of Afghanistan’s security control over to Afghan forces. The summit, which Karzai is to attend, also will set 2014 as a deadline for the end of coalition combat operations there and will showcase a long-term NATO-Afghan partnership.
Petraeus “never actually threatened resignation,” but his comments to Ghani reflect his desire to ensure that the Afghans understood the seriousness of the situation, a senior NATO military official said.
“We’ve been (subsequently) assured that President Karzai is fully supportive of the joint strategy, that we share the desire for Afghan forces to take the lead, and that we’ve worked hard together to address all the issues over which (Karzai) raised concerns and will continue to do so,” the official said.
Petraeus did not attend a scheduled meeting yesterday with Karzai, officials said. Karzai’s spokesman also canceled a scheduled news conference. Some Afghan officials yesterday attempted to smooth over the issue by declaring Karzai’s respect for Petraeus and faith in his strategy.
It is “categorically false” to interpret Karzai’s remarks as a “vote of no confidence in Gen. Petraeus,” one senior Afghan official said. In addition to agreement on ending the coalition combat mission by the end of 2014, he said, there are many areas of “common interests and common objectives.”
In the Saturday interview, Karzai said the often-troubled U.S.-Afghan dynamic had improved since Petraeus’ arrival in the summer, and that the two countries have a more “mature relationship.” But he also outlined a vision for the U.S. military presence here that sharply conflicts with the Obama administration’s strategy.
In addition to ending night raids, Karzai said he wants U.S. troops to be less intrusive in the lives of Afghans, and that they should strive to stay in their bases and conduct just the “necessary activities” along the Pakistan border.
“I think it’s (Karzai’s) directness that really sticks in the craw,” another NATO official said. “He is standing 180 degrees to what is a central tenet of our current campaign plan.”
The latest rift follows a string of public disputes between Karzai and the West in recent months.