AFGHAN PRESIDENT Hamid Karzai sits in the relative comfort of Kabul thanks to the presence of American troops and money. Yet he attacks the very benefactor that has sacrificed more than any other to give his people hope and a sense of security. Karzai has long had a knack for saying the wrong thing at the worst possible time, but his recent anti-American tear has put American troops at greater risk and threatens to undo the tenuous gains the United States has paid mightily to foster for more than a decade.
During the past several weeks, Karzai has ordered American commandos to halt operations in the Taliban stronghold of Wardak Province, ramped up the dispute over the handling of detainees, and accused U.S. and Taliban forces of conspiring to prolong the war and the Western military presence. His comments came as Afghan security forces killed two coalition troops in the latest insider attack. The top American commander in Afghanistan issued a warning to his forces Wednesday, noting that Karzai's comments "could be a catalyst" for a backlash of violence. The American mission was right to take precautions, and it should be prepared to respond to further threat advisories in the coming days.
It is easy to dismiss Karzai's comments as self-serving, coming from a divisive leader facing his final year in office. He has routinely pushed back in his relationship with NATO in an effort to bolster his nationalist image among a population that fiercely distrusts foreigners. But Karzai's timing was particularly irresponsible. Coming as insider attacks are on the rise, the remarks open a door to extremists looking to infiltrate the security forces. They come as an unseasonably warm spring could bring an early start to the fighting season. And they mark a bizarre salvo as Washington and Kabul continue negotiations over a long-term U.S. security role in Afghanistan after NATO forces leave as scheduled at the end of 2014.
The Obama administration is in a diplomatic bind. Criticizing Karzai directly would have little impact on him, and it could only undermine coalition support for an ongoing military presence. But the administration should use this as a reality check going forward. Karzai tried to soften his remarks this week, but that was about self-preservation as much as the anti-American tirade that won him attention. The episode shows that Afghans still don't have confidence in the central government, much less its ability to broaden the political process. As President Barack Obama charts a post-2014 mission, he needs to be realistic about what he can achieve. Being accused of colluding with the enemy is not a promising start. It shows a depth of denial on Karzai's part about America's fatigue with this war that fundamentally questions this partnership.