KABUL, Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai has interfered in corruption cases and even threatened to join the Taliban if foreigners didn’t stop meddling.
Now he is demanding that the U.S.-led coalition begin reducing its military operations and stop what the military believes is its most successful tactic — night raids against suspected Taliban commanders.
It’s the latest in a series of rifts between the international community and the mercurial president, who leads an impoverished nation that is growing tired of foreigners as 130,000 troops battle a stubborn insurgency.
Although both sides tried Monday to downplay the dispute, Karzai’s remarks renewed questions about the direction of the war just days before NATO prepares to unveil a new strategy that will keep troops in combat until at least 2014.
Karzai’s demands may play into the hands of critics in the United States who think President Barack Obama should honor his desire to begin withdrawing troops next July if conditions allow. U.S. officials have been working for months to clarify Obama’s remarks, saying that they didn’t suggest a mass exodus of troops in 2011.
“The time has come to reduce military operations,” Karzai told The Washington Post in a weekend interview. “The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan … to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life … make it more civilian.”
Asked what was wrong with the military strategy, Karzai replied: “The raiding homes at night. Terrible. Terrible. … Bursting into homes at night, arresting Afghans, this isn’t the business of any foreign troops.
“The Afghan people don’t like these raids. If there is any raid, it has to be done by the Afghan government within the Afghan laws. This is a continuing disagreement between us.”
NATO and diplomatic officials said Monday that Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was irked by Karzai’s comments.
In response to earlier complaints by Karzai, Afghan security forces now accompany all special operations teams and use bullhorns to ask targeted individuals to give themselves up peacefully.
It was unclear whether Karzai’s latest complaints would result in a slowdown of such raids, which have increased six-fold over the past 18 month and now average more than 200 a month, according to the coalition.
NATO claims the night raids have helped make a significant impact on the leadership of insurgent networks. In the past three months, more than 300 insurgent leaders have been captured or killed; more than 850 lower-level militants have been killed; and at least 2,170 foot soldiers have been apprehended, according to coalition figures.
More than half of the operations result in the capturing or killing of targeted individuals, according to the coalition. No shots are fired in more than 80 percent of the operations.
The coalition hopes night raids will weaken the Taliban by pressuring the midlevel commanders to abandon the battlefield and force the top insurgent leaders to the negotiating table.
In his message for Eid al-Adha, the most important holiday on the Islamic calendar, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar said Monday that the insurgents aim to increase operations nationwide. But in his statement, which was e-mailed to the media, Omar also appealed for funding from Muslims around the world — a sign that NATO’s campaign may be hurting the militants far more than they have acknowledged.
Karzai remained unconvinced.
“I would like to have an end sooner rather than later to these nighttime raids in Afghan homes no matter how effective they are in the sense of the military in the United States or in NATO,” Karzai said. “How can you measure the consequences of it in terms of the loss of life of children and women because he have captured Talib A?”
Although the number of Afghan civilians killed or injured in the war soared 31 percent in the first six months of the year, Taliban bombings and assassinations were largely responsible, according to the United Nations.
The U.N. said the number of deaths and injuries caused by NATO and Afghan government forces dropped 30 percent compared with the first six months of last year, largely a result of curbs on the use of air power and heavy weapons.
At a news conference Monday, Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said the president had confidence in Petraeus’ strategy to rout insurgents, improve security and bolster governance and development.
He said he did not think Karzai’s comments would affect the NATO summit, which begins Friday in Lisbon.
At the summit, coalition leaders will seek to convince troop-contributing nations that progress is being made and that the war effort merits continued support. They will also discuss transition — the plan for Afghan security forces gradually to take the lead in defending and protecting the nation by 2014.
“We have clarified to NATO that the president is talking within the framework of transition and his quotes in the interview have to be seen within the context of the overall interview,” Omar said. “When he talks about reduction of military activities and reduction of international forces in Afghanistan, the president makes it conditioned on the ability of the Afghan security forces to take responsibility.”
Omar said the president’s remarks reflect a “mature partnership” between Karzai and NATO where partners can freely express their views about how certain things within the strategy could improve.
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Karzai’s comments were in line with NATO’s intent to start handing over responsibility for security to Afghan government forces next year, allowing international troops to take on more of a support role.
“I can’t say I agree with everything President Karzai has said … but we also have to recognize that he is the elected president of the country and that he can express his views as he wishes,” Karzai.
Karzai has a history of lashing out when he senses international interference into Afghan affairs.
Earlier this year, members of the Afghan parliament said that in a closed-door meeting Karzai twice threatened to abandon the political process and join the Taliban insurgency if pressure continued from lawmakers and foreign backers who have demanded he do more to end graft, cronyism and electoral fraud.
While Karzai has pledged to fight corruption, he became angry this summer when one of his close aides, Mohammad Zia Salehi, was arrested for allegedly accepting a car in exchange for his help in thwarting another corruption case. Karzai intervened and ordered Salehi’s release.
The Associated Press