KABUL — President Hamid Karzai's threat to join the Taliban if foreigners don't stop meddling in Afghanistan and his strident criticism of the West's role have worsened relations with Washington at a time when the U.S. military wants closer cooperation ahead of a potentially decisive offensive this summer.
Karzai has been fuming for months about what he considers Washington's heavy hand. He's gambling that blaming outsiders in a society with a long tradition of resisting occupation will bolster his stature at home — while carrying little risk because the United States has no choice but to deal with him.
But managing the rift has become a major problem for both sides. President Barack Obama's strategy depends on working with a strong, reliable Afghan partner to turn back a resurgent Taliban, raising the question of what will happen if that partnership fails.
Karzai's comments suggest his understanding of partnership differs from Obama's considerably. On certain issues, he clearly wants Washington to back off.
Karzai has long chafed under what he considers excessive international pressure. Those complaints escalated Thursday when he lashed out against the U.N. and the international community, accusing them of perpetrating a "vast fraud" in last year's presidential polls as part of a conspiracy to deny him re-election or tarnish his victory — accusations the United States and United Nations have denied.
Two days later, Karzai told a group of Parliament members that if foreign interference in his government continues, the Taliban would become a legitimate resistance — one that he might even join, according to several lawmakers present.
"He said that 'if I come under foreign pressure, I might join the Taliban,' " said Farooq Marenai, who represents the eastern province of Nangarhar. "He said rebellion" against a legitimate Afghan government "would change to resistance" against foreign occupation.
Karzai told CNN on Monday he has no intention of breaking with Washington, which is pouring 30,000 more troops into the fight against the Taliban: "It's just to make sure that we all understand as to where each one of us stands. Afghanistan is the home of Afghans and we own this place. And our partners are here to help in a cause that's all of us. We run this country, the Afghans."
Lawmakers agreed the threat to join the Taliban did not appear serious but reflected Karzai's anger over U.S. and international pressure on several issues, including electoral reform, combating corruption and contacts with Taliban insurgents. Those differences were sharpened by Obama's unannounced visit to Kabul on March 28. In advance of the trip, Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, told reporters that Karzai needed once and for all to confront corruption and "be seized with how important that is." Karzai's advisers found the public tongue-lashing humiliating — especially coming from a guest.
At the same time, the United States and its partners have been urging Karzai to reform the electoral system to avoid the corruption that marked the Aug. 20 presidential balloting, when a third of the president's votes were thrown out by a U.N.-backed antifraud watchdog.
That forced him under U.S. pressure to accept an embarrassing runoff, which was called off when his remaining challenger complained the second election would be no cleaner than the first. The United States and its partners want changes in place by September, when Afghans choose a new Parliament.
Karzai associates have said the president considers Western complaints of corruption a smoke screen to discredit his government and draw attention from the fact that most of the billions in international aid have been squandered by the donors themselves and not wasted by his government.
In February, Karzai issued a presidential decree taking control of the antifraud body and removing U.N.-appointed foreigners from any watchdog role. His outbursts over the past week came after Parliament overturned the decree, a move he believed was in response to international pressure.