Obama and Karzai: 'On the same page' or at 'the end of the rope'?

President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai had starkly different public appraisals of a conversation Friday, raising doubts about where Afghan leader really stands.

Ahmad Jamshid/AP
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (l.) listens to a family member of Afghan civilians who were killed Sunday by a US soldier in Panjwai in Kandahar Province, at the presidential palace in Kabul Friday.

President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued starkly diverging appraisals of US-Afghanistan relations Friday, pointing to the extent of the impact from last weekend’s shooting rampage in which a US soldier is accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the two leaders “were very much on the same page” in an early morning phone call that Mr. Obama placed Friday to Mr. Karzai.

By contrast, the Afghan leader told family members of Sunday’s shooting victims assembled at the presidential palace in Kabul that US-Afghan relations are at “the end of the rope.”

The deepening tensions surfaced the same day the alleged shooter in Sunday’s rampage, whom reports have identified as Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, was being flown to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to await charges. Afghan officials had demanded that the shooter face trial in Afghanistan, but he was quickly whisked out of the country after the shooting.

The villagers told Karzai that the killings were not the result of a lone gunman, which contradicts the US military’s version of events. Karzai said US cooperation and sharing of information on the massacre has been “poor.”

The two leaders’ discussion focused on Karzai’s demand Thursday that foreign troops pull back from Afghan villages – a shift that, if carried out, would throw into disarray NATO’s counterinsurgency strategy of operating alongside Afghan security forces to train them while winning over Afghan “hearts and minds.”

US officials have said they doubted Karzai was serious – and was understandably letting off steam in the wake of Sunday’s horrendous killings – since following through on Karzai’s demand would expose villages to increased Taliban activity.

In a joint statement issued following Obama’s phone call, Obama and Karzai said they “agreed to further discuss concerns … about the presence of foreign troops in Afghan villages.”

But Karzai gave the conversation a different spin in his meeting with families of the shooting victims.

“This morning, Obama called regarding this issue” of his demand that foreign soldiers leave Afghan villages, Karzai told the families, according to the Associated Press. “He asked, ‘Did you announce this?’ I said, ‘Yes, I announced it,' ” Karzai said. “I insist on this issue.”

Karzai never has warmed to the strategy of having foreign troops live and operate among villagers, insisting that the close proximity of Western soldiers and conservative rural inhabitants creates more problems than it addresses. He has also said that the Taliban are not generally in villages but operate from remote locations, and that placing the soldiers among the people takes the war to them.

The US-Afghan tensions take place as the two countries negotiate an agreement for a continued US presence in Afghanistan after the completion of NATO’s combat mission at the end of 2014. Some Afghanistan experts say Karzai may be assuming a hard line with Obama as part of a negotiating stance.

The two sides had already reached agreement on one prickly issue – conditions for the Afghans to hold and eventually release detainees currently under US control – before Sunday’s massacre. Some officials from both sides had suggested that an accord was not far off on the next big hurdle: whether or not remaining US forces focused on counterterror operations will be allowed to continue the practice of night raids.

Obama has said the US intends to conclude the strategic partnership agreement before NATO leaders meet in Chicago in May to map out the alliance’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.

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