KABUL, Afghanistan — As Afghan President Hamid Karzai was poised to begin his second term after a fraud-scarred re-election campaign last fall, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led an American delegation to Kabul where she hailed Karzai for opening "a window of opportunity" for a new cooperative era at a critical time.
That window appears to be closing quickly.
Relations between Karzai and the Obama administration soured dramatically this week, and the tensions threaten to interfere with the U.S.-led effort to take key Afghan cities back from the Taliban, hand them over to the Afghan government and begin withdrawing American troops by July 2011.
Karzai "decided to break with us in a major way. All this is not easily patched (up)," said one official, who insisted on anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak for the record.
Some American officials worry that tensions are reaching a new milestone just as U.S. is becoming more deeply engaged in Afghanistan, both diplomatically and militarily. There currently are 87,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and that number will increase to more than 100,000 by July when the surge of additional forces is complete.
Tensions also are growing despite a parade of U.S. officials who've visited Kabul this year, including Clinton; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, the national security adviser; as well as President Barack Obama.
Indeed, on the same day that Gates visited Kabul, Karzai hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
After a cool meeting with Obama last weekend in Kabul, Karzai delivered a broadside on Thursday that questioned America's motives in Afghanistan. Karzai went so far as to suggest that the U.S. risks being viewed as an invader that wants a "puppet government" in Kabul.
The White House fired back on Friday.
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration has asked Karzai to explain his critique. "Obviously, some of the comments of President Karzai are troubling," Gibbs said. "They're cause for real and genuine concern."
Karzai's suggestion that U.S. troops could come to be seen as "invaders" could taint public opinion in Afghanistan and surrounding countries, the official said, noting that it's a label that until now had been used primarily by the Taliban and other insurgents.
In an effort to smooth over the dispute, Karzai called Clinton on Friday "to clarify his statements," the State Department said. "President Karzai reaffirmed his commitment to the partnership between our two countries, and expressed his appreciation for the contributions and sacrifices of the international community," said Clinton spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Does Karzai enjoy the support of the administration? "Depends on who you ask," a senior defense official told McClatchy, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to speak publicly.
Relations between the Obama administration and Karzai have always been strained. Even before he was elected president, Obama made little effort to conceal his view that Karzai was a disappointing leader.
Confidence in Karzai plummeted last summer when he oversaw a widely discredited, fraud-tainted presidential vote. International pressure eventually forced a resentful Karzai to accept a runoff.
On Friday, Karzai's challenger in that race, Abdullah Abdullah, suggested that the Afghan president had become unhinged in his recent speech.
"It was extraordinary," said Abdullah, who dropped out of the runoff after failing to persuade Karzai to overhaul the electoral process for the second round of voting.
Karzai, who apparently sees himself as the besieged father of the Afghan state, had come to expect warmer treatment during the Bush administration, when he had regular access to the White House and was routinely praised by senior U.S. officials.
"He's been going sideways . . . for a while," the U.S. official said, "trying to distance himself from the United States."
Despite serious misgivings among some of his closest advisers on Afghanistan, Obama cautiously embraced Karzai after his new term began in November and decided to send 30,000 more American troops to help the Afghan president beat back surging Taliban resistance.
The Obama administration made it clear that Karzai had to complement the U.S. military commitment with a quick crackdown on corruption and an effort to regain the confidence of suspicious Afghans.
Western officials in Kabul have consistently voiced frustrations that Karzai hasn't been moving fast enough since he was sworn in.
While a U.S.-led military coalition quickly routed Taliban fighters in Marjah, a district in southern Afghanistan's restive Helmand province, the Afghan government has been slow to fill the political void. Privately, Pentagon officials complain that there still isn't enough local governance after U.S. Marines, partnered with Afghan forces, secured Marjah.
Now the U.S. is counting on Karzai to take decisive political steps as coalition forces prepare for a campaign to push out Taliban leaders in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city and the heart of the radical Islamist movement.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has stressed that Karzai has approved plans for Afghan troops to build a ring around Kandahar and root the Taliban out from there.
In Kabul, there are growing concerns that Karzai's unfolding showdown with Afghan lawmakers could jeopardize parliamentary elections scheduled for this fall.
While lawmakers were on recess in February, Karzai issued a decree that gave him the power to appoint all five members of the independent election body that investigated fraud in last year's presidential election.
Though Karzai eventually acceded to international pressure and gave the United Nations the right to name two members, Afghan lawmakers balked.
On Wednesday, Afghanistan's lower house voted to strip Karzai of that power. While the move must be backed by the upper house, Karzai already has blasted lawmakers for challenging his power.
Karzai's frustrations may have been compounded by reports that American officials were quietly prodding Afghan lawmakers to act.
"I think there was some strong lobbying from the U.S. Embassy that upset him," said one Western official in Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the volatile political climate.
On Friday, opposition leader Abdullah was joined by a handful of the Afghan lawmakers who challenged Karzai.
"If the window isn't already closed, it's closing," said engineer Mohammed Asam, an Afghan lawmaker who voted to strip Karzai of his new electoral powers. "I am afraid we are losing our opportunity."
(Nissenbaum reported from Kabul; Strobel and Youssef reported from Washington. Margaret Talev contributed to this article from Washington.)
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