March 12 (Bloomberg) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s accusation that the U.S. is colluding with the Taliban may add to pressure from Congress for a faster U.S. troop withdrawal than President Barack Obama plans, lawmakers said.
“A strong partnership with the U.S. is in his best interest and in Afghanistan’s best interest, and I think he has undermined that to a very unhealthy degree,” Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said of Karzai in an interview yesterday.
Karzai’s allegation came a day after suicide attacks in Kabul and Khost province and while Chuck Hagel was making his first visit to Afghanistan as U.S. defense secretary. Karzai said in a speech on March 10 that the U.S. is engaged in peace talks with the radical Islamists, and the bombs were in the “service of America.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney yesterday called the notion that the U.S. is colluding with the Taliban “categorically false.” Analysts such as Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said such comments by Karzai may be aimed largely at Afghan domestic politics.
While the administration has had bipartisan support for funding the current level of U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- about 68,000 are there today -- lawmakers say relations between the two countries are fraying fast.
In interviews, lawmakers also cited current disputes with Karzai over the role of U.S. special operations forces and over control of prisoners. A planned transfer of prisoners being held by the U.S. at Bagram air base outside Kabul to Afghan control over the weekend was delayed because the two sides couldn’t agree on the terms of the handover. Karzai had said he would release some of the prisoners over U.S. opposition.
For those who want some or all U.S. troops brought home quickly, Karzai provided a fresh argument for their cause.
“If Karzai isn’t an ally 100 percent of the time, in my book he’s not an ally,” said Representative Bill Young of Florida, the top Republican on the defense appropriations subcommittee. “And I don’t think he is, and I think our troops are being put at risk to defend a person who in my opinion should not be defended by the United States.”
Karzai “should spend more time addressing the widespread corruption in his regime rather than making false claims against Americans who are fighting for the freedom of his people,” Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said in a statement. “President Karzai’s despicable comments confirm it is time to bring our troops home and rebuild America, not Afghanistan.”
Representative Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat, said his position that U.S. troops should be brought home faster than the administration plans has only been bolstered by Karzai’s behavior. Obama wants to withdraw about 34,000 by February and bring home most troops by the end of 2014. He hasn’t said how many would stay beyond that.
“I don’t think a force of about 30,000 could do much more than defend the capital,” said Moran, a member of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds the Pentagon. “And with these kinds of histrionics by Karzai, I’m not sure that Karzai’s capital is worth defending. Twelve years is enough.”
Lawmakers who back Obama’s plans -- or want more troops to stay longer -- said the Afghan president wasn’t making things any easier.
Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who serves on the defense appropriations panel, said that while he doesn’t seek a faster troop-withdrawal plan, Obama may see support for his timetable slip among Republicans who control the House.
“You can’t expect the opposition party to be more invested in the administration’s policy than its own party is,” Cole said, citing opposition among some Democrats.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has said Obama is withdrawing troops too fast, said in an interview that Karzai has made provocative comments in the past, and then “he’s walked them back.”
“Part of it is that he’s just not sure about the future of our relationship -- how many troops are going to be there, what that arrangement will be,” McCain said. “The best way to bring this to a halt is if we really solidify the arrangement post-2014.”
Smith, the Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he doesn’t see how the U.S. can pull out any faster than Obama plans without endangering security. The real fight will be over how many troops should stay after 2014, he said.
A key test will come in negotiations between the U.S. and Afghanistan over a bilateral security agreement to ensure that any U.S. military personnel stationed in Afghanistan after 2014 remain immune from Afghan laws, Smith said. Karzai’s conduct in recent days suggests he may overplay his hand with demands in those negotiations that would result in no deal, Smith said.
The makeup of Congress gives Obama some advantages in any debate over troop levels, according to Representative Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican. With the House under Republican control, many lawmakers will heed the counsel of military leaders on how many troops are needed, he said.
“We are a little more patient in letting the military lead on this, but I do think there is a growing concern,” he said.
Obama has a lot at stake politically in averting a too-speedy withdrawal that would leave Afghanistan in chaos, Cole said.
“If it all comes unraveled and there’s some sort of debacle or messy withdrawal or collapse in Kabul, there will be a lot of finger-pointing, and most of it will be at the administration,” he said.
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