Matthew Rosenberg and Helene Cooper / The New York Times – 2012-03-16 21:26:52
KABUL, Afghanistan (March 16, 2012) — The last thing President Obama did before going to bed Thursday night was to call President Hamid Karzai, whose day was just getting started here.
The airwaves in Washington and Kabul had been flooded with Mr. Karzai’s surprise demand that the United States confine its troops in Afghanistan to major bases by next year — a move that could seriously disrupt American plans here. Mr. Obama sought to clarify exactly where the Afghan president stood.
The phone call between the two leaders seemed to go well, administration officials said. But hours later, after meeting with the families of the 16 Afghans killed this week in a shooting rampage attributed to an American soldier, Mr. Karzai lashed out again at the United States, saying he was at “the end of the rope” over the deaths of Afghan civilians at the hands of NATO forces. He reiterated his call to confine coalition forces to major bases and to speed up the handoff to Afghan troops. He also accused American officials of not cooperating with a delegation he had sent to investigate the killings in the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province, in southern Afghanistan.
The Afghan leader’s comments were expected to intensify the sense of crisis that has begun to permeate the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan in recent weeks. The two allies appear to be increasingly at odds over basic elements of the strategy to fight the Taliban, and widespread Afghan resentment at the presence of foreign troops appears to be intensifying amid a series of American missteps — from Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters to soldiers burning Korans.
The killings in Panjwai on Sunday have left both sides grasping for a way to stabilize the deteriorating relationship. Mr. Obama and other senior American officials have repeatedly apologized, but the expressions of regret have done little to placate angry Afghans, including Mr. Karzai. On Friday, the United States military identified the Panjwai suspect as Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.
In his phone call, Mr. Obama began by congratulating Mr. Karzai on the birth of a baby daughter on Thursday, saying that as the father of two girls himself, there was “no greater blessing” than to have daughters, administration officials said.
Then Mr. Obama got to the point — trying to determine whether Mr. Karzai really wanted a quicker American pullout or whether he was seeking to mollify an angry domestic audience.
“What we found out,” said one administration official with knowledge of the 20-minute call, was that when it comes to the endgame, “we’re actually on the same page.”
That page, in essence: NATO forces would shift to a more supportive role next year with combat operations winding down through 2014. After that point, a residual American counterterrorism force would remain to keep Afghanistan from slipping back into its pre-Sept. 11, 2001, state. “Both leaders recognize to a large extent that their individual fates are greatly tied together,” said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress, a research institution in Washington.
But in his comment on Friday, Mr. Karzai offered a different recounting of the phone call, illustrating the sharply divergent narratives that have taken hold in Washington and in Kabul.
“I told him what I had told him before — that you should get out of our villages,” Mr. Karzai said, adding that he wanted the transition completed in a year, not two.
“We will insist on this issue,” he added. “We know that our country has suffered both from its own people and the foreigners.”
Mr. Karzai has made similar comments before, and on Friday he appeared to be playing mainly to a domestic audience. His army is woefully unprepared to fight the Taliban — only one of its 158 battalions was rated last year by NATO as ready to fight on its own — and his government is dependent on foreign financial support.
But a growing number of Afghans do not want coalition forces in their country. That is likely to make the American strategy, predicated on working with Afghans, increasingly difficult to execute.
Attacks by Afghan forces on their NATO counterparts are occurring at a rate that is alarming coalition commanders, raising questions about the future of the training mission, which American officials have envisioned as continuing into 2014 and possibly beyond.
Confining NATO forces to major bases by this time next year could solve that problem. But it would at the same time effectively end their ability to train Afghan soldiers by living and operating alongside them.
The other main element of the American plan, leaving a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan past 2014, may prove more difficult. Mr. Karzai strongly objects to the kinds of operations that such a force is likely to carry out — raids on villages at night — as he made clear in his comments on Friday.
Mr. Karzai’s opposition to the so-called night raids is longstanding. He says it violates Afghan culture to storm into a home at night, and many civilians have died in the raids, exacerbating the divide over the operations.
While American officials have emphasized that the Panjwai massacre was the work of a lone, rogue soldier, most Afghans see it as similar to the night raids, including Mr. Karzai, who on Friday portrayed it as the latest in a string of episodes in which coalition forces have killed Afghans.
“This has been going on for too long. It is by all means the end of the rope here,” he said. “This form of activity, this behavior, cannot be tolerated. It’s past, past, past the time.”
In his comments, Mr. Karzai also questioned whether only a single American soldier was involved in the Panjwai massacre. He said the accounts of villagers — many of whom have said multiple soldiers took part in the shootings — did not match the American military’s assertion.
Still, Mr. Karzai emphasized that he wanted a good relationship with the United States, his chief foreign backer. But he insisted that it must be predicated on American respect for Afghan culture and laws.
A few hours after the phone call, the White House and Mr. Karzai’s office released a statement reaffirming that American troops would complete their withdrawal by the end of 2014. “The two leaders also discussed President Karzai’s recent reiteration of his longstanding concerns regarding night raids and house searches and recommitted to conclude ongoing negotiations on a memorandum of understanding to resolve those concerns,” the statement said.
The Obama administration and the Afghan government are trying to negotiate an agreement that would determine what happens after 2014.
Both the Obama administration and Mr. Karzai are resigned to the Taliban’s possibly running some towns in, say, Helmand Province, or other villages in the countryside, administration officials say, but they add that the larger concern for the United States is the counterterrorism mission, while the larger concern for Mr. Karzai is the safety of the central government in Kabul.
“It’s the ultimate security guarantee,” a senior administration official said on Friday. “To him, that’s the long-term commitment he would need.”
Matthew Rosenberg reported from Kabul, and Helene Cooper from Washington. Rod Nordland, Habib Zahori and Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting from Kabul.
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