WASHINGTON: Pentagon chief Robert Gates and top US diplomat Hillary Clinton came to the defense of Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday, despite a damaging rift over his controversial remarks.
President Barack Obama's cabinet officers weighed in on behalf of Karzai after days of tensions between Washington and Kabul triggered by the Afghan president's claims that foreign powers had orchestrated fraud in last year's elections.
Clinton told CBS that "we consider him a reliable partner" and Gates said Karzai had excellent relations with the head of US and NATO-led troops in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. "What I can tell you is that General McChrystal continues to meet with him regularly. They have a very positive relationship. He gets very good cooperation out of President Karzai," Gates told ABC's "This Week."
The comments came amid a show of unity at a conference in Kabul on Sunday, with Karzai appearing along side US envoy Richard Holbrooke and senior commander General David Petraeus, head of the regional US Central Command.
Karzai also made a trip to northeastern Kunduz province with McChrystal, as the Americans tried to bolster the Afghan leader's position before pivotal military offensives.
Offering an explanation for Karzai's recent angry tone, Gates said Washington had to tread cautiously in its public remarks about the Afghan president, as sharp criticism of his performance could be received in Kabul as disrespect for Afghan sovereignty.
"I think we frankly have to be sensitive in our own comments about President Karzai in terms of being mindful that he is the embodiment of sovereignty for Afghanistan," he said, noting Karzai "has domestic audiences as well as foreign audiences."
Speaking to NBC's "Meet the Press," Gates said that "when there are attacks on him, on his family, and what he perceives to be on Afghanistan itself, or insults to the sovereignty of Afghanistan, he's going to react. "And he's going to react strongly."
Clinton, who appeared with Gates on Sunday television talk shows, said Karzai -- like some other foreign leaders -- suspected harsh words in American newspapers may reflect the US government's official stance.
"He's not alone in wondering that if he's attacked by some newspaper in the United States, is our government behind it? " she told NBC.
"And that's not unusual for us to encounter, I see it all the time in leaders that I deal with." Clinton added that she had "a lot of sympathy for President Karzai and the extraordinary stress he lives under every single minute of every day."
She also called some allegations in the US media against Karzai "outlandish" and "really unfortunate."
A former senior United Nations official in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, has said that Karzai's "mental stability" was in doubt and that he could be taking illegal drugs.
But Clinton insisted Karzai was "absolutely" stable. US officials pointedly declined to call Karzai an ally early on Tuesday, and hinted an invitation to visit the White House next month could be withdrawn if he repeated his anti-foreigner outbursts.
But officials have since scaled back their tone, making it clear the May 12 talks were still on, with Clinton saying "we're looking forward to his visit."
The Afghan president's claim that the election that returned him to power last year was manipulated by foreign governments came after Obama, during a visit in Kabul, pressed him to act on tackling corruption.
Analysts say Karzai's outburst may have been a reaction to direct US pressure or an attempt to boost flagging support domestically, where opposition groups and the Taliban insurgency, portray him as a Western "puppet."
Karzai reportedly told lawmakers last weekend that the United States was interfering with Afghan affairs and that the Taliban would become a legitimate resistance movement if it did not stop.
In the private meeting, the Afghan president even suggested he could join the Taliban himself, if parliament did not support his efforts to take control of the country's election commission, The Wall Street Journal said.