PARIS Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai has accused the United States of denouncing his friends and family in an effort to undermine his own position and make him more malleable.
In a wide-ranging interview with Le Figaro daily, released on Monday, Karzai also condemned a NATO airstrike last week on hijacked fuel tankers, and said he supported a mooted shift in U.S. military tactics in Afghanistan.
Karzai, who is closing in on a first-round victory in last month's presidential election, revealed strained relations with the United States and said U.S. criticism of his running mate, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, was actually aimed at him.
"The Americans attack Karzai in an underhand fashion because they want him to be more tractable. They are wrong. It is in their interest ... that Afghanistan's people respect their president," he said, referring to himself in the third person.
"It is in no-one's interest to have an Afghan president who has become an American puppet," he added.
The New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch has called Fahim one of the most notorious warlords in the country, while Le Figaro said Washington had branded him a drug smuggler.
Karzai also said accusations that his own brother was corrupt were unfounded, adding that the United States embassy in Kabul had twice failed to answer his written requests for proof.
"That said, I am not going to deny that there is a serious problem of corruption in the heart of our administration. My priority is to fight that. But I am also going to ask for more transparency from our foreign partners," he said.
ELECTION FRAUD "INEVITABLE"
He also said there might have been fraud in last month's disputed presidential elections, but indicated he did not think it was important. His main challenger Abdullah Abdullah has said there was large scale cheating.
"As far as the elections are concerned, there was fraud in 2004, there is today, there will be tomorrow. Alas, it is inevitable in a nascent democracy," he said.
Karzai said that if his re-election was confirmed, he would seek national reconciliation talks with the Taliban within the first 100 days of his new administration.
He said the Taliban would first have to renounce any ties with al Qaeda and recognize the Afghan constitution.
Karzai told le Figaro that he welcomed a recent review of military strategy in Afghanistan, undertaken by U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, which has yet to be made public.
The Afghan president said McChrystal had showed him the proposals which emphasized protecting the Afghan population rather than killing Taliban.
"I approve of this 100 percent," he said, adding, however, that the general was wrong to confuse the Afghan insurrection with terrorism. "The insurrection is something that is totally different from terrorism. It's an internal Afghan affair."
Karzai also said that McChrystal had assured him that he had not personally ordered an airstrike last Friday on hijacked fuel tankers. Afghan officials said the attack killed many civilians.
"What an error of judgment! More than 90 dead all because of a simple lorry that was, moreover, immobilized in a river bed. Why didn't they send in ground troops to recover the fuel tank? By the by, General McChrystal telephoned me to apologize and to say that he himself hadn't given the order to attack."
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Louise Ireland)