- Associated Press - Thursday, November 18, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | With the war at a critical stage, Afghanistan’s president is publicly berating his NATO allies, criticizing military tactics and occasionally reminding them that they are not the only players in his country.

President Hamid Karzai’s behavior has left his international partners bewildered as they try to decipher his motives - whether he’s trying to provoke them, play to a domestic audience or ensure his long-term survival by portraying himself as no puppet of the U.S.-led coalition.

Meanwhile, the NATO alliance is preparing to unveil plans that would keep international soldiers at the forefront of the combat role until 2014.

Yet Mr. Karzai demanded in an interview last weekend that NATO reduce its military operations and stop what the military says is its most successful tactic: night raids against suspected Taliban leaders.

NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said Mr. Karzai’s comments were unproductive, especially because they were made days before a meeting in Lisbon that is meant to finalize the 2014 target date for a gradual transition of security to Afghan forces.

“Clearly, it is not helpful,” Mr. Sedwill said. “We have different perspectives - that’s natural. It is much better if we work those different perspectives out in private.”

Then, just ahead of a weekend NATO summit he will attend, Mr. Karzai met Wednesday with the top U.S. commander and said he supported NATO’s military campaign and, reluctantly, its nighttime special operations raids, a senior NATO official said.

The hour-long meeting in Kabul between Mr. Karzai and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, helped smooth over the controversy that followed the interview, said the official, who was among those briefed on the meeting. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the high-level discussion.

It wasn’t the first time the mercurial Mr. Karzai has raised eyebrows and befuddled many of his supporters in the West.

In August, Mr. Karzai stood beside Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the Iranian leader railed against the United States, and Mr. Karzai later acknowledged accepting bags of money from Iran.

He accused the European Union and the United States of manipulating last year’s presidential elections in an attempt to put his competitor Abdullah Abdullah in power.

More recently, he accused the United States of wasting billions of dollars meant for reconstruction and then announced he was shutting down private security firms that guard international aid organizations, forcing them to scramble for alternative, made-in-Afghanistan security.

Mr. Sedwill, the NATO representative, said it wasn’t clear whether Mr. Karzai’s comments were driven by a desire to pander to public opinion.

“I don’t have a window into other men’s souls,” he said.

But Mr. Karzai’s criticism is striking a chord among Afghans.

“There is a widespread feeling that things just don’t add up,” said Martine van Bijlert, co-founder and director of the independent Afghan Analysts Network.

Afghans, she said, wonder: “If the foreigners really came to fight the Taliban, with all their troops and money, why is the insurgency only getting stronger?”

The international community often cites security as the top priority, yet Afghans see the foreign troops as a source of insecurity. The West wants to help rebuild Afghanistan, yet Afghans bemoan the lack of reconstruction.

NATO says its forces are in Afghanistan to help crush the insurgency, yet it is burgeoning. Another goal is to help bring stability and good governance, yet Afghans see corruption as runaway and good governance a distant dream.

“There are a lot of misunderstandings,” said Ms. van Bijlert. “Both see the other side as erratic, duplicitous, not honest about their own agenda.”

Andrew Wilder, an analyst from the U.S. Institute of Peace who has spent decades in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said some see Mr. Karzai’s attacks on the international community as an attempt to divert attention from mounting criticism over corruption in his administration.

“I think Karzai is quite skillful at using these confrontations over tactical issues, which end up consuming large amounts of time and energy of top international policymakers … to distract attention from more important strategic issues that he does not want the international community dealing with,” Mr. Wilder said.

Mr. Abdullah, who lost to Mr. Karzai in the fraud-ridden 2009 presidential election and an opponent of Mr. Karzai’s effort to make peace with the Taliban, said Mr. Karzai’s second term in office is about his survival.

To survive politically, Mr. Abdullah said, Mr. Karzai is seeking to enhance his image as a fierce nationalist.

“His main aim is to stay in power,” Mr. Abdullah said. “Part of it is to emerge as a nationalist. He is trying to show Afghans ‘I am strong.’ “

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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