Kabul President Hamid Karzai put a brave face Thursday on President Barack Obama’s decision to start pulling out troops in mid-2011, telling The Associated Press in his first public response that it will push Afghans to take control of their own destiny.
But he blamed the United States for stalling peace overtures in the past and offered to talk directly with the Taliban’s top leader.
Karzai appeared relaxed and confident throughout the exclusive AP interview — the Afghan president’s first remarks since Obama’s announcement Tuesday that he will send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next fall with the anticipation that they would start coming home in July 2011.
Karzai said the deadline, just 18 months away, is “not a concern for us — it is rather an impetus.”
“For Afghans it’s good that we are facing a deadline,” he said. “We must begin to stand on our own feet. Even if it is with our own meager means — whatever those means may be. And we must begin to defend our own country.
“If we, the Afghan people, cannot defend our country, ourselves, against an aggressor from within or without, then no matter what the rest of the world does with us, it will not produce the desired results,” he said during the one-hour interview at the turreted brick palace in the heavily guarded heart of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Republicans have objected to the setting of a hard deadline for withdrawing troops for fear it would encourage the Taliban to play a waiting game and say Obama must be willing to delay the start of a pullout if security deteriorates.
But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates told U.S. lawmakers Thursday that the July 2011 date is flexible. The White House said Obama set this date to make sure Karzai’s government knows it has limited time to reform itself and take charge of security.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for a timetable for training Afghan security forces, battling police corruption and appointing nearly 400 provincial and district governors.
Karzai called Brown’s remarks “very unfortunate and very artificial.”
“It is extremely insulting,” he said. “But it doesn’t affect me and it doesn’t affect the Afghan people.”
The president offered talks with the Taliban, including its one-eyed leader, Mullah Omar, who has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head. Yet Karzai said overtures stood little chance of success without the support of the United States and its international partners.
On Tuesday, Obama said the U.S. must “open the door” to Taliban members who abandon violence as a way to turn the tide of an eight-year war that has killed more than 850 members of the U.S. military.