KABUL (Reuters) - The strategic pact sealed by President Barack Obama last week in Afghanistan is at risk of becoming “meaningless” if Afghans do not feel safe, President Hamid Karzai said on Monday, referring to recent civilian casualties inflicted by NATO.
Karzai summoned U.S. General John Allen, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker to his palace to discuss the civilian deaths, a longstanding thorn in ties between Karzai and his Western backers.
The killing of civilians has soured the feelings of many ordinary Afghans towards foreign forces in a war that is becoming increasingly unpopular and is dragging into its 11th year.
“Karzai signed the strategic pact with the United States to avoid such incidents (civilian casualties) and if Afghans do not feel safe, the strategic partnership loses its meaning,” a presidential palace statement said, referring to an agreement setting out a long-term U.S. role in Afghanistan.
The statement added that dozens of civilians had been killed in the eastern provinces of Kapisa and Logar, northwestern Badghis province and the southern Taliban stronghold of Helmand over the past three days in NATO air strikes.
A spokesman for NATO said the air strikes were under investigation, and the palace statement quoted Allen as saying: “I personally take responsibility for these incidents.”
Last year, hundreds of angry Afghans across the country took to the streets to protest the killings of civilians by NATO forces, who are planning to leave their combat role by the end of 2014.
Obama swooped into Afghanistan for the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death on May 2 to sign the strategic partnership, which lays out plans for future aid and advisers.
The deal may provide Afghans with reassurances that they will not be abandoned when most NATO combat troops leave as planned in 2014.
In a sign of brewing tension with neighboring Iran, members from the lower and upper house of parliament, or senate, sharply condemned earlier remarks by Tehran’s new ambassador to Afghanistan, who has criticized the strategic pact.
“We ask Iranian officials to draw a line under their direct and indirect interference in Afghanistan... The harm Iran is causing is very painful,” senate member Nisar Haris told reporters on Monday.
Haris said he attended a closed-door meeting last week with Iran’s envoy Abu Fazel Zohrawand, who was accepted by Karzai late last month, during which he rejected the strategic pact with the U.S.
An official at the Iranian embassy in Kabul defended the ambassador’s alleged remarks, saying: “The pact signed between Afghanistan and America will put the Islamic Republic of Iran’s security under threat in the future”.
“With our 950-km (594 miles) border with Afghanistan, we have the right to be concerned by bases which are created near Iran,” the official said on condition of anonymity, referring to the prospect of long-term U.S. military bases.
Though ties between Afghanistan and Iran have improved since the Taliban was ousted just over a decade ago with Washington even saying Tehran could help stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan, the relationship remains extremely fragile.
Female lawmaker Shukria Barikzai described the Iranian envoy’s rejection of the pact as “Iran’s official start in Afghan interference”.
Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Michael Roddy