WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top U.S. officials sought to repair Washington’s troubled relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, calling him a reliable partner and pledging to treat him with greater sensitivity.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both described Karzai as a constructive player in trying to stabilize Afghanistan and distanced themselves from people outside the administration who have described his behavior as erratic. Their comments were made in television interviews taped on Friday but aired on Sunday,
“Some of these outlandish claims that are being made and accusations that are being hurled are really unfortunate,” Clinton told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“This is a leader who is under enormous pressure,” she said. “And I wonder sometimes how anybody can cope with the kind of relentless stress that you face after having been in some military activity or war footing for 30 years, which is what the reality is in Afghanistan.”
Gates told ABC’s “This Week” that the U.S. military had a “very positive” relationship with Karzai and called him “the embodiment of sovereignty for Afghanistan.”
“I think we frankly have to be sensitive in our own comments about President Karzai,” Gates said.
Earlier this month, after a series of comments by Karzai that rankled Washington, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs left open the possibility of a cancellation of Karzai’s planned May 12 meeting with President Barack Obama.
In remarks that U.S. officials now downplay as an effort to seek favor with his domestic audience, Karzai blamed foreigners for perpetrating election fraud in Afghanistan and accused Western governments of trying to weaken him.
Media reports also suggested that Karzai’s meeting with Obama last month had been tense, with the Afghan leader perceiving Obama’s comments about corruption as lecturing. The meeting took place during Obama’s first visit as president to Afghanistan.
In a decision that markedly increased his administration’s stakes in the outcome of the U.S. and NATO-led fight against the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, Obama in December ordered the deployment of an extra 30,000 to Afghanistan.
The Obama administration has had an uneasy relationship with Karzai throughout Obama’s 15 months in office.
The White House began the effort to effort mend fences with Karzai last week when Obama sent a letter to the Afghan president thanking him for his hospitality during the visit and reiterating the importance of the partnership between Washington and Kabul.
White House National Security Adviser James Jones, who briefed reporters on the letter on Friday, brushed off Karzai’s earlier comments and said the Afghan leader “did not intend to create any damage to the relationship” with them.
On CBS, Gates said Karzai had been helpful in an operation to regain control of the southern city of Kandahar, Karzai’s hometown.
“He’s already made a couple of these trips to the Kandahar area with General (Stanley) McChrystal and so he is very much participating in setting the stage if you will for this next phase of the campaign,” Gates said. McChrystal is the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Emily Kaiser; Editing by Jackie Frank