March 13, 2013
U.S. General Puts Troops on Security Alert After Karzai Remarks
By ALISSA J. RUBIN and ROD NORDLAND
KABUL, Afghanistan — The American commander in Afghanistan quietly told his forces to intensify security measures on Wednesday, issuing a strongly worded warning that a string of anti-American statements by President Hamid Karzai had put Western troops at greater risk of attack both from rogue Afghan security forces and from militants.
The order came amid a growing backlash against Mr. Karzai’s public excoriation of the United States, including a speech on Tuesday in which he suggested that the government might unilaterally act to ensure control of the Bagram Prison if the United States delayed its handover.
An array of Afghan political leaders issued a joint statement criticizing Mr. Karzai and saying his comments did not reflect their views. And though American military and diplomatic officials have mostly refrained from replying publicly to Mr. Karzai’s criticism, in private they have expressed concerns that relations between the allies had reached a worrisome low point right at a critical point in the war against the Taliban.
Frustration with Mr. Karzai was clear in the alert, known as a command threat advisory, sent on Wednesday by Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. to his top commanders. “His remarks could be a catalyst for some to lash out against our forces — he may also issue orders that put our forces at risk,” the advisory read.
Senior American military officials confirmed that a copy of the advisory obtained by The New York Times was genuine, although they said it had not been intended to be released publicly. While threat advisories are circulated routinely, one directly from the commanding general is unusual, one Western official said.
The threat advisory specifically mentioned Mr. Karzai’s comments about Bagram Prison, calling it an “inflammatory speech,” and warning commanders to be on guard against heightened insider attacks by Afghan forces against Westerners, as well as opportunistic Taliban violence. The order came after a recent rise in violence, including an insider attack that killed two American servicemembers and a bombing that struck the capital just after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived for a visit last week.
Brig. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty, the head of communications for the military here, said that a more general threat advisory would normally have gone out in April, but was sent early because of recent events. “This is prudent,” he said. “It’s making sure the force is seeing the same thing we’re seeing. It’s our job to alert the force.”
Mr. Karzai’s latest comments, in the southern province of Helmand, came after weeks of increased tension over his public comments about the United States, including banning Special Operations forces from a critical province and, on Sunday, suggesting that the Taliban and the United States were in effect colluding to keep each other in Afghanistan.
His harsh stance has been widely taken as an attempt to improve his domestic political image by appealing to Afghan sovereignty. But the comments have led to a furious backlash among some of the Afghan leader’s past supporters in Congress, and among his political opponents — and even some allies — within Afghanistan.
In Washington, even Republican members of Congress who had long been strong supporters of the Afghan war and Mr. Karzai, were scathing in their denunciation of him in recent days. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has visited Mr. Karzai repeatedly and has long been involved with Afghanistan policy, expressed “disgust and resentment” over the Afghan’s comments, in remarks quoted on Foreign Policy magazine’s Web site. He added: “I am perfectly capable of pulling the plug on Afghanistan.”
That last statement was an offhand reference to the negotiations now under way to determine the size and shape of an American military presence in Afghanistan past 2014, and perhaps to the billions in dollars of future American aid already committed to the country.
One senior Obama administration official said Wednesday that commanders on the ground were taking appropriate steps given the circumstances. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, said that many in the administration were “obviously unhappy” with Mr. Karzai’s comments, but insisted the latest tensions would do little to alter the current military assistance plan for Afghanistan.
Still, some Afghan leaders have expressed concern that American budgetary concerns, coupled with a worsening political relationship between the countries, could lead the United States to reduce or even remove its support.
In Kabul, both Afghan vice presidents met with Mr. Karzai for two hours Wednesday morning, while a group of representatives from 14 political parties — most of them opposition groups but several with members in government — held a news conference to denounce the president’s stance.
“All these remarks may destroy our relations with the international community, and especially America, and lead to the isolation of Afghanistan again,” said Faizullah Zaki, the spokesman for Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the powerful Uzbek leader and warlord who campaigned for Mr. Karzai in his 2009 election and later fell out with him. “We are calling on the president to stop doing this because we believe it is not in our national interest.”
In the American threat advisory issued Wednesday, General Dunford expressed concerns about the strain between the countries, saying, “We’re at a rough point in the relationship.” He said the contretemps could encourage insurgents, given that the Taliban and other groups “are also watching and will look for a way to exploit the situation — they have already ramped up for the spring.”
In the latest outbreak of violence, which Afghan officials attributed to the Taliban, a suicide bomber on Wednesday targeted a crowd after a match of buzkashi, or Afghan polo, in northern Kunduz Province. The attack killed the police chief, Abdul Qayoum Ibrahimi, his son, his father and seven other people. Mr. Ibrahimi was the brother of the speaker of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, and of Abdul Latif Ibrahimi, a presidential adviser. They were not present, but their father was also among the dead.