Karzai rebuke to US: What angered the Afghan leader?

By Dawood Azami
BBC World Service

image captionHamid Karzai does not like the role of a subordinate in dealing with the US

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been critical of several aspects of Nato's mission in his country - but his recent stinging rebuke, followed by a series of decisive moves, is unprecedented, both in terms of frequency and harshness.

Within one month, he initiated several moves that not only show his attempts to assert his power but also affect the whole nature of Nato's mission in Afghanistan.

Mr Karzai stopped Afghan forces from calling in US air strikes after 10 civilians - most of them women and children - were killed in one of such strikes in Kunar province in the east of the country on 13 February.

Following a number of complaints about mistreatment of civilians, he ordered US Special Forces out of Wardak - a strategic province adjacent to Kabul - within two weeks.

And after the arrest of yet another university student by foreign forces, the president banned international troops from university campuses.

He also accused US officials of violating an agreement for a complete transfer of the Bagram detention facility and insisted that Afghans must get immediate and full control of the prison.

image captionMost of the victims of the US air strike in Kunar were children and women

But when the American troops did not leave Wardak and the Afghan government was not given the control of Bagram, he openly and in very harsh terms criticised the US in several speeches.

He even accused the US and Taliban of colluding with each other to keep Afghanistan unstable and, therefore, to prolong US presence.

But commenting in a Pashto and Dari bilingual TV debate forum organised by the BBC and Afghanistan's National Radio Television network, President Karzai called the US a friend and strategic partner of Afghanistan.

He added that his recent remarks about the US had been, as he put it, "to correct rather than damage this relationship".

'Flawed strategy'

The timing of such harsh language is important.

His recent anti-US rhetoric comes at a time when negotiations on the terms for American military presence after the withdrawal of Nato combat forces by the end of 2014 are at a critical stage.

The US is keen that the agreement is signed before the Nato summit in mid-2013.

President Karzai has been critical of the civilian casualties caused in Nato military operations, and what he sees as "insults" to "innocent Afghans" arrested by foreign forces, as well as violations of local tradition and culture.

People from across the country complain to him nearly every day and ask him to protect them and their property as elected president.

President Karzai believes that such incidents are pushing the general population towards insurgency and create a sense of occupation.

But he is now expressing his suspicion about the overall US-led mission in Afghanistan and the way the war is fought against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

image captionNato combat forces are expected to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014

He views the US strategy as flawed and has repeatedly suggested that the US and its allies must pay attention to sanctuaries of insurgents which, he says, are outside Afghanistan.

The timing is also important for President Karzai personally.

A year before he is due to leave office, he seems very serious about establishing his authority as well as Afghan sovereignty.

He is frustrated about his continued reliance on foreign forces and is aware about his dependency on international community's military and financial aid.

But he wants a relationship between two equal partners and does not like the role of a subordinate.

"We want a good relationship with America; we want friendship, but friendship between two sovereign nations," says Mr Karzai.

Some of his foreign backers might have underestimated him.

But an old saying warns that "you can hire an Afghan, but you cannot buy him"; the president is trying to gain greater control for himself and his country.

Good name

Over the past decade, President Karzai has portrayed himself as a unifying figure who kept the country together and brought different factions and ethnic groups into his government.

He also wishes to bring the Taliban in from the battlefield and go down in history as a peacemaker in a country that has been rocked by more than three decades of continued violence.

Appealing to nationalist sentiments and invoking Afghanistan's sovereignty are also part of the legacy he wants to leave.

President Karzai wants to be remembered as a leader who "liberated" the country from foreign influences.

He is also playing to his own Afghan constituencies and - above all - history. Leaving a good name behind is a virtue in Afghan culture.

As one of the most famous Pashto poets, Khoshahal Khan Khattak (1613 - 1689), says in one of his poems:

"Only the men of honour are praised in songs,

Both in their life and after they are dead."