KABUL — With the United States weighing a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of next year, President Hamid Karzai offered a stinging critique of the US-led campaign here, saying coalition forces had inflicted needless suffering on Afghans.
“They could leave,” he said in an interview Tuesday with the BBC.
The focus of the war, Karzai said, should have been insurgent training camps and safe havens across the border in Pakistan, not “in Afghan villages, causing harm to Afghan people.”
Karzai has lashed out at the United States and its allies before. But his latest comments came at a crucial juncture: The NATO coalition’s mission concludes at the end of 2014, and negotiations to keep US forces in Afghanistan beyond that point are stalled, according to Afghan and US officials.
Officials on both sides say they have reached the limits of their willingness to compromise, a sentiment echoed by Karzai in the BBC interview.
“If the agreement doesn’t suit us, then, of course, they can leave,” he said. “The agreement has to suit Afghanistan’s interests and purposes. If it doesn’t suit us and if it doesn’t suit them, then naturally we will go separate ways.”
If no deal is struck with the United States, it would be logistically impossible for European powers to stay on. US and European officials have also said that billions of dollars in aid on which Afghanistan depends — the country contributes only about 20 percent of its budget — would be in jeopardy if all foreign military forces departed.
Two sticking points remain.
The first is Karzai’s insistence that the United States guarantee Afghanistan’s security as it would if the country were a NATO ally. That could compel the United States to send troops on raids into Pakistan, an ally of Washington and a nuclear-armed power.
The second is Karzai’s refusal to allow US forces to continue hunting for operatives of Al Qaeda in his country. The Afghan leader wants the United States to hand over its intelligence and let Afghan forces conduct the operations.
US officials have balked at both proposals. They have said they would cut off talks if substantial progress was not made in the coming weeks and begin preparing for a complete withdrawal.
Only months ago, US generals were speaking openly of plans to keep some troops — mostly likely fewer than 10,000 — in Afghanistan to train Afghan forces and hunt for Al Qaeda forces.
But President Obama, in an Associated Press interview last week, struck a far more equivocal note, saying the United States would consider keeping troops in Afghanistan only if it got the deal it wanted.
“If we can’t, we will continue to make sure that all the gains we’ve made in going after Al Qaeda we accomplish, even if we don’t have any US military on Afghan soil,” Obama said.
US officials say the threat to cut off talks is not a bluff, although Afghan officials have so far said that they see it that way. Many in the Afghan government have said they believe keeping forces in Afghanistan is a strategic necessity for the United States, and therefore it must compromise.
Karzai, speaking to reporters Monday, said he would call a loya jirga — a traditional gathering of tribal elders and other important people — to discuss the security agreement with the United States. He said the jirga would take place at the end of the month, which would likely push past the Obama administration’s deadline for concluding talks.
Karzai, who has six months left in office until a successor is elected, said in the BBC interview that the United States and its allies had failed to deliver what they promised.
“I am not happy to say that there is partial security,” he said. “That’s not what we are seeking. What we wanted was absolute security and a clear-cut war against terrorism.”