KABUL (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador to Kabul has issued a thinly veiled warning to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that harsh criticisms of the West could jeopardize the troops and funding critical to the Afghan government’s survival.
Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said he found comments from “some” Afghan leaders “hurtful and inappropriate,” according to a transcript of a speech released late on Sunday.
Although he did not mention Karzai by name, the speech appeared to be a direct response to a string of verbal broadsides against Western troops serving in Afghanistan and the diplomatic and aid programs that accompany them.
In one recent fiery speech Karzai warned that foreign soldiers risked being seen as occupiers because of civilian casualties they caused. Last week he said the West was polluting the country with weapons containing toxic chemicals.
Eikenberry said those comments left him ashamed and speechless in front of the relatives of U.S. war dead.
“When I hear some of your leaders call us occupiers, I cannot look at these mourning parents, spouses, and children in the eye and give them a comforting reply,” Eikenberry told an audience of students and academics at Herat University in western Afghanistan.
“When we hear ourselves being called occupiers and worse, our pride is offended and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on,” he added, in a personal addendum to a speech on education and transition.
But Karzai’s spokesman said some of the president’s comments had been misunderstood and warned against “over-reacting” to constructive criticism, saying that Afghan people standing up for their own interests should not be dubbed offensive.
Karzai’s spokesman said that in his controversial speech on civilian casualties the president was only warning western allies that their image in his country was at risk, and that details may have been lost in a bad translation.
“The president has never termed international forces as occupying forces ... He has said if the bombardment of civilian homes and civilians continue, there is a risk that (this view of western troops as occupiers) could become part of public opinion in Afghanistan,” Waheed Omer said.
But Omer also warned against “over-reacting” to criticism, and added that although effective assistance was appreciated, the west had not come to Afghanistan for altruistic reasons.
“No one can deny that international community came to Afghanistan for the sake of their own interests in the first place. We as Afghans have every right ... to make sure that international community’s presence also serves the interests of the people of Afghanistan,” Omer said.
“I don’t see why this should be termed as offending.”
Eikenberry was speaking as U.S. President Barack Obama mulls how steep a U.S. troop withdrawal that starts in July should be.
That will coincide with the first phase of a gradual handover of security control to the Afghan police and army, who are due to take responsibility for all of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, though critics warn this date is premature.
At present NATO is rushing to expand and train up security forces that have long struggled with problems ranging from widespread illiteracy, drug abuse and corruption to a dearth of leaders and equipment and a damaging rate of attrition.
Although the training team say progress is impressive, it will still be years before they have a real hope of holding off disciplined and battle-hardened insurgents across the country.
Even when they can fight alone, the size of the security forces and Afghanistan’s sickly economy means they will need help paying salaries and buying equipment for years to come.
Eikenberry warned that patience to help Afghanistan seek security would not be infinite if Afghan partners were dismissive of U.S. sacrifices of lives and money.
“At the point your leaders believe that we are doing more harm than good ... especially at a time our economy is suffering and our needs are not being met, the American people will ask for our forces to come home,” Eikenberry said.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Sugita Katyal