KABUL, Afghanistan — The often volatile U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai was further strained Sunday as Karzai accused the U.S. and Taliban insurgents of having a secret understanding to foment violence as a pretext to keep foreign troops in Afghanistan.
The comments were the latest — and perhaps the most baffling — broadside by Karzai against one of his nation’s closest allies, leaving U.S. officials struggling to limit the fallout.
The comments came hours before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was to hold a news conference with Karzai at the presidential palace.
The news conference was canceled due to security concerns, not to Karzai’s inflammatory speech, U.S. officials said.
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In a speech in Kabul, Karzai said bombings a day earlier by the Taliban in Kabul and the eastern Khost province, killing 18, “were not to show (the insurgents’) power, but to serve the United States.” Speaking in the Dari language, he added the bombings were intended “to pave the way for foreigners not to leave, but to stay.”
He claimed U.S. officials were meeting with the Taliban “every day,” an apparent reference to Taliban representatives opening an office in the Gulf nation of Qatar as a precursor to possible peace talks with Kabul.
U.S. officials have denied direct contacts with the Taliban.
U.S. officials said they had no explanation for Karzai’s statements. The Taliban immediately denied it had resumed talks with the U.S.
“President Karzai has never said to me that the United States was colluding with the Taliban. I don’t know what caused him to say that today,” said Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander of the U.S.-led military coalition.
“It’s categorically false. We have no reason to be colluding with the Taliban.”
Karzai often uses inflammatory rhetoric in his public statements. He has referred to the Taliban as his “brothers” and accused the West of invading Afghanistan to steal its resources.
Hagel’s visit got off to a rocky start Saturday with the bombings. Despite the cancellation of the joint news conference with Karzai, Hagel went ahead with a private meeting and dinner with the Afghan leader at the palace.
Later, Hagel said he raised the comments in his dinner with Karzai.
“I told the president it was not true that the United States was unilaterally working with the Taliban and trying to negotiate anything,” Hagel said.
Asked whether it was astonishing for Karzai to question U.S. motives after 11 years of war, Hagel said, “I addressed that question rather directly.”
Defense Department press secretary George Little said the news conference “was not canceled because of the president’s recent comments.”
Hagel’s scheduled meetings with the Afghan ministers of defense and interior at their offices also were moved to a different site because of the security concerns, the U.S. officials said.
“We believe we can continue to have a productive relationship with President Karzai,” said a senior U.S. official. “We have indicated to him in private that public criticism is unhelpful to the partnership, especially when there is no basis to the claims.”
Since Karzai visited the White House in January for talks with President Obama, the relationship has grown increasingly testy as the Afghan leader has issued a stream of decrees aimed at limiting the role of the U.S. military and its allies.
Last month, his office ordered the U.S. to withdraw its special forces from Wardak province after charging that the troops and Afghans working for them had tortured and kidnapped villagers, a charge the U.S. rejected.
The Obama administration and Afghanistan have been locked in lengthy and difficult talks on a long-term security agreement on how many American troops will remain after 2014 and the size of a U.S. military aid package, as well as on agreements on turning over prisoners in U.S. custody to Afghan control.