Karzai blasts US, NATO for 'using' Afghanistan, announces Taliban talks

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s tendency to oscillate between support for NATO and harsh criticism of it has confounded and irked friend and foe alike.

Stanislav Filippov/AFP
Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrives for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Astana, on June 15. President Karzai, who has a tendency to oscillate between support for NATO and harsh criticism of it, has lashed out again, saying talks with the Taliban have begun.

In what’s become a familiar pattern, Afghan President Hamid Karzai delivered a speech on Saturday afternoon blasting the US and NATO for “using our country.”

“The nations of the world which are here in our country are here for their own national interests,” said the president during a youth conference at the presidential palace. He went on to accuse them of polluting Afghanistan with military vehicles and also announced that negotiations have started with the Taliban.

Since March, he has called on the US and NATO to stop operations here (only to later clarify that he meant operations that result in civilian casualties) and given them a stern ultimatum to stop killing civilians. Shortly after each controversial speech, he usually reaffirms ties with NATO and the US.

Karzai’s tendency to oscillate between positions at either end of the spectrum has confounded and irked friend and foe alike, leading to speculation among American diplomats that he may be struggling with a mental illness. But some Afghans say that the main problem could be that Afghans leaders – traditionally used to tailoring their messages to navigate shifting allegiances – are just not used to coping with modern, international media that stand ready to expose any contradictory remark.

“Currently some politicians are the same as Karzai, but the media is not focusing so much on small politicians. Karzai is the president and has the most media coverage,” says Babrak Shinwari, a former member of parliament from Nangarhar province. “I would suggest that he use only written speeches and does not deviate from them. When he goes off script, he says anything and that’s why it brings the mistrust of the regional countries and the international community on Karzai.”

Fluid allegiances, competing messages

Throughout history, Afghans have been notorious for working with competing sides and changing allegiances when it becomes clear their rivals are becoming more powerful. For Afghan politicians, this has meant a history of working closely with rivals and communicating sometimes seemingly competing messages to different audiences.

This strategy, however, encounters serious problems when politicians make remarks intended to appeal to a specific audience in the presence of media who broadcast the remarks countrywide and sometimes internationally. Additionally, as the media has grown substantially since the fall of the Taliban, Afghans have become more savvy about leaking select information to journalists.

In this climate, Karzai’s remarks about NATO are likely intended to win support among Afghans, but when disseminated to an international audience they create major problems.

'People are confused'

Still, many Afghans say this is no excuse for Karzai’s seemingly erratic remarks.

“Media should be considered a given in today’s world and today’s society," says Daoud Sultanzoy, a former member of parliament from the eastern province of Ghazni. "Leaders have to adjust to that, to the freedom of the media, to the freedom of expression.”

Even among Afghans familiar with leaders who flip flop as political tides turn, Karzai’s behavior is seen as confusing and difficult to read. In a nation where 72 percent of the population is illiterate, many Afghans still follow radio and television news closely and hear the president’s contradictory remarks.

“People are confused," says Izzatullah Wasifi, Afghanistan’s former anti-corruption chief. "They can’t understand what are his motivations, what are his motives, what is his strategy, and where does he want to take this nation?”

Karzai's increasingly blunt criticism of NATO and US efforts led American Ambassador Karl Eikenberry to issue a rare response Sunday at appearance before students at Herat University.

“When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost — in terms of life and treasure — hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own interest, and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people," said Mr. Eikenberry, without mentioning Karzai by name, "they are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here.”

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