From The New York Times:
March 17, 2012
Gulf Widens Between U.S. and a More Volatile Karzai
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Americans in Afghanistan are “demons.”
They claim they burned Korans by mistake, but really those were “Satanic acts that will never be forgiven by apologies.”
The massacre of 16 Afghan children, women and men by an American soldier “was not the first incident, indeed it was the 100th, the 200th and 500th incident.”
Such harsh talk may sound as if it comes from the Taliban, but those are all remarks either made personally by the United States’ increasingly hostile ally here, President Hamid Karzai, or issued by his office in recent days and weeks.
The strongest such outburst came Friday. “Let’s pray for God to rescue us from these two demons,” Mr. Karzai said, apparently holding back tears at a meeting with relatives of the massacre victims, and clearly referring to the United States and the Taliban in the same breath. “There are two demons in our country now.”
Ever since the Koran-burning episode on Feb. 20 and its violent aftermath, the relationship between the two governments has lurched from one crisis to another. American officials have scrambled to run damage control, with President Obama expressing a personal apology for the Koran burning, as well as regrets about the massacre, while calling Mr. Karzai twice in the past week.
The White House went to lengths last week to depict Mr. Karzai’s call for Americans to hand over control a year earlier, by 2013, as no change in policy — only to have Mr. Karzai pointedly insist the next day that it was. The Americans fret that Mr. Karzai is making a difficult job almost impossible, with demands they often see as unreasonable; Mr. Karzai worries that the Americans seek to undermine him, and may yet abandon his country and him, once again, to their fate.
The Koran burnings brought these differences into sharp relief, and led to a rupture in trust some view as irreparable. After an American unit at Bagram Air Base inadvertently burned Korans, embassy officials were deeply worried about an investigation conducted by the country’s Ulema Council, its highest religious body.
The council’s pronouncements, however, are closely controlled by Mr. Karzai’s office — they are even issued by the presidential palace — and American officials were assured by senior members on the president’s staff that the council’s report would be tough but not incendiary.
“We were ready to get knocked a bit,” said an American official who asked not to be identified to preserve his relationship with Afghan officials. “We messed up pretty badly.”
The original draft, in fact, was relatively moderate, American and Afghan officials said. But at the last minute more hard-line elements of Mr. Karzai’s staff weighed in, and the joint statement finally issued by the Ulema Council and the palace used language like “Satanic act” and “unforgivable, wild and inhuman” about the book burnings, and “justifiable emotion” in regard to the violent reaction, which claimed the lives of at least 29 Afghans and 6 Americans.
Western diplomats have often viewed Mr. Karzai’s outbursts as playing to the galleries, meant for consumption by his own people only, not as serious statements of policy. But the galleries also include the public in the United States and its NATO allies, where majorities in nearly every country oppose remaining in Afghanistan, and every new contretemps risks further eroding an already tenuous support.
“I think this is very serious because Mr. Karzai has always had a very ambivalent attitude toward the West and toward the war — he has never really believed violence is the answer,” said Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007 through 2009. “He is also very conscious and very resentful that his political survival and even perhaps his personal safety depend on the Americans.”
The current American ambassador, the veteran diplomat Ryan C. Crocker, was brought out of semiretirement by President Obama last July at least in part because he had known Mr. Karzai since the beginning: Mr. Crocker was the first envoy to Afghanistan after the invasion that defeated the Taliban, when Mr. Karzai was appointed interim leader here.
Like many of his predecessors, Mr. Crocker began his latest tour on an optimistic note. “President Karzai has the toughest job in the world, and he has been doing it for the last 10 years,” Mr. Crocker said early on, and has repeated often since. “You have to give him credit.”
While the two men still have a working relationship and meet often, according to aides to both, there are many signs that the warmth has gone out of that relationship once again.
Mr. Crocker insisted in an interview with PBS on Friday that this was not the case.
“I think he is a committed Afghan nationalist, that at the end of the day he seeks the same goals we do,” the ambassador said. “And sometimes the rhetoric gets a little heated. Sometimes my rhetoric has been known to get a little bit heated in a few of these meetings, and then I go sit under a tree and think about the larger equities at stake, and we move on.”
From Mr. Karzai’s point of view, the Americans have repeatedly defied his demands to end commando night raids, and one civilian casualty after another has put him in the position of either criticizing the Americans and angering them, or not criticizing them and angering Afghans.
“In any relationship there are things that one party does that the other party doesn’t particularly care for, and that goes both ways,” said James Cunningham, the deputy ambassador to Afghanistan. “The question is not just whether President Karzai is a partner; we’re discussing and putting into place a partnership that is going to look forward a decade or so, and that’s a partnership with Afghanistan and its leaders, whoever they are.”
The relationship is so frayed, however, that Mr. Karzai often is quick to view everything through the prism of presumed American perfidy.
When American diplomats meet with his political opponents, he sees it as a sign that they are out to topple him from power — something that has reportedly obsessed him ever since the presidential election in 2009, which the international community saw as widely fraudulent. American officials pressured him into agreeing to a runoff, which in the end his opponents refused.