REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- President Hamid Karzai’s office on Monday sought to distance him from controversial remarks in a television interview aired over the weekend in which he asserted that Afghanistan would side with Pakistan in a hypothetical war against the United States.
The presidential palace said the Afghan leader’s comments, made in an interview with the Pakistani television station Geo, had been “misinterpreted.”
The remarks came toward the end of a lengthy interview conducted in English and Urdu, in which the Afghan leader repeatedly urged Pakistan to move against Islamic militants on its soil, according to a transcript released by Karzai’s office.
In response to a question from the Pakistani reporter about whether Afghanistan would support Pakistan in the event of a conflict between it and the United States, Karzai initially responded “God forbid,” but then went on to pledge his country’s backing for its neighbor.
“If a war ever breaks [out] between Pakistan and America, we will side [with] Pakistan,” the president said, according to the transcript. “Afghanistan would stand with you. Afghanistan is your brother.”
While relations between the United States and Pakistan have been tense in recent months, particularly in the wake of the raid by elite U.S. troops that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town in May, the prospect of armed conflict between the two allies is generally considered remote.
A spokesman for Karzai, Siamak Herawi, said the president had not intended any slight to the Western governments that have spent billions of dollars shoring up the Afghan administration during the 10-year war that has claimed the lives of at least 1,817 American troops.
“The media misinterpreted [Karzai’s] speech,” he said, adding that the president had been trying to express solidarity with Pakistan for having taken in millions of Afghan refugees during decades of war and the subsequent rule of the Taliban movement.
Western military officials and diplomats publicly played down the significance of Karzai’s comments, even while privately expressing varying degrees of bafflement and dismay.
Christopher Chambers, a spokesman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s civilian representative in Afghanistan, told reporters in Kabul on Monday that it was important to “focus on the much wider dialogue that is required for peace for both Afghanistan and Pakistan … which the people of both countries certainly want and deserve.”
It is not the first time that inflammatory remarks from Karzai have caught his Western backers by surprise, but overt verbal clashes have dropped off in recent months.
Last week, at a joint news conference with visiting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Karzai voiced strong support for Mrs. Clinton’s assertion that Pakistan needs to move more strongly against insurgents using havens on the Pakistani side of the frontier as springboards for attacks against coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Even so, in the Geo interview, the Afghan leader reiterated his longstanding concern over wartime civilian casualties, and his often-stated opposition to night raids on Afghan residential compounds led by U.S. troops.
“I don’t want any American soldier entering Afghans’ homes anymore,” he said.
— Laura King
Photo: Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai speaks at a news conference this month in Kabul. Credit: S. Sabawoon / EPA