NATO chief says Karzai accusation "absolutely ridiculous"
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The head of NATO said on Monday it was "absolutely ridiculous" for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accuse the United States of colluding with the Taliban and said Kabul should recognize sacrifices made by other countries on Afghanistan's behalf.
Karzai marred a debut visit to Afghanistan by the new U.S. defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, on March 10 by accusing Washington and the Taliban of colluding to convince Afghans that foreign forces were needed beyond 2014, when NATO is set to wrap up its combat mission and most foreign troops are to withdraw.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was concerned about the increasingly harsh rhetoric between Karzai and the United States, which contributes the largest contingent to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
"I reject the idea that was publicly launched by President Karzai that ... there is so-called collusion between NATO, ISAF, the U.S. and the Taliban. It is an absolutely ridiculous idea," Rasmussen told a news conference, using unusually strong language for the normally cautious NATO chief.
"We fully respect the sovereignty of Afghanistan but we would also expect acknowledgement from the Afghan side that we have ... invested a lot in blood and treasure in helping President Karzai's country to move forward," he said.
More than 3,000 foreign troops have been killed in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led military intervention began in 2001. Some estimates put the cost to the United States alone of the Afghan war in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
"Troops from 50 ISAF nations have sacrificed in order to bring progress to Afghanistan," Rasmussen said.
Karzai has been increasingly assertive towards the United States. Last month, he ordered U.S. special forces to leave Wardak province after residents complained that they, and Afghans working with them, were torturing and killing civilians, an allegation strongly denied by the Americans.
Opposition politicians saw Karzai's order as a political move to bolster his party's support base ahead of a presidential election next year. Karzai is not allowed to stand again.
Rasmussen also said that a change in U.S. missile defense plans would not reduce the European coverage of a planned U.S. missile shield and had "nothing to do" with Russia, a vocal critic of the European missile shield plan.
Hagel announced plans on Friday to bolster U.S. missile defenses in response to "irresponsible and reckless provocations" by North Korea, which has threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States.
The Pentagon will add 14 new anti-missile interceptors in Alaska. To free up funds for that, U.S. officials said they were foregoing development of a new interceptor that would have been deployed in eastern Europe.
The interceptor has been a focus of Russian concern that the U.S. anti-missile shield in Europe would weaken its nuclear deterrent.
Some news reports suggested the Pentagon's move could help resolve a long-running dispute between Russia and the United States over the European anti-missile shield.
Rasmussen said the U.S. decision had "nothing to do with Russia." He insisted that "the Europeans will see no difference in their missile defense and there will be exactly the same coverage of NATO Europe as in the original plan".
NATO's invitation to Russia to cooperate on missile defense still stands, Rasmussen said, adding that dates were under consideration for him to make a possible visit to Moscow.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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