Parsing statements by President Hamid Karzai has become something of a parlor game in the Afghan capital.
The Afghan leader’s office sought Monday to distance him from his controversial remarks in a weekend television interview, in which he asserted that Afghanistan would side with Pakistan in a hypothetical war against the United States.
The presidential palace said Karzai’s comments to Pakistan’s Geo TV, aired Saturday, 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 who take refuge 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 Islamabad in the event of a conflict between Pakistan 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.”
Although relations between the United States and Pakistan have been tense in recent months, particularly in the wake of the raid by elite U.S. forces that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town in May, the prospect of armed conflict between the two allies is 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. At least 1,817 American troops have died in the conflict.
“The media misinterpreted [Karzai’s] speech,” Herawi 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 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 had dropped off in recent months.
Last week, at a news conference with visiting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Karzai voiced strong support for her assertion that Pakistan needs to move more strongly against insurgents who use 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 long-standing concern over wartime civilian casualties, and his often-stated opposition to night raids on Afghan residential compounds by U.S.-led troops.
“I don’t want any American soldier entering Afghans’ homes anymore,” he said.
The centerpiece of Clinton’s visit last week was a call for the Pakistani government to rein in the Haqqani network, a Taliban offshoot based in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The Western military said Monday that pitched battles over the last week in eastern Afghanistan, the Haqqanis’ main area of operations, had left about 200 insurgents captured or dead.
Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a German spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, told reporters in Kabul that the latest military push by Western and Afghan troops “degrades the Haqqani network’s ability to coordinate and execute future attacks.”
So far, at least 20 of the fighters captured or killed have been linked to the Haqqanis, he said.