U.S. Envoy Blasts Afghan Leader's Comments

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The U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, did something unusual. He publicly lashed out at Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a speech to students at Herat University.

LAURA SULLIVAN, host: Turning now to Afghanistan. The U.S. ambassador there, Karl Eikenberry, did something unusual this morning. He publicly lashed out at President Hamid Karzai. He told a group of students at Herat University that Americans don't understand when Karzai compares the U.S. to occupiers. The ambassador said that such comments make Americans weary of our efforts here.

Here to talk to us about this war of words is NPR's Kabul bureau chief, Quil Lawrence. Quil, what did Ambassador Eikenberry say?

QUIL LAWRENCE: Ambassador Eikenberry was responding to a string of comments by President Karzai; the most recent ones yesterday, where he sometimes likened Americans to occupiers, and even in the past has threatened to join the insurgents. And Eikenberry was at Herat University, as you said, out west, and he's at the end of his tenure.

I was actually traveling with him over the weekend. And he was getting very near emotional about the conflict over here. He's been here twice as a general and now, for two years, as an ambassador. And he came back after his regular speech and after a question-and-answer period, and he said he'd like to add some remarks, he said, spoken from the heart. I'll quote him here. He said: I must tell you that I find occasional comments from some of your leaders hurtful and inappropriate, when Americans who are serving in your country at great cost, in terms of lives and treasure, hear themselves compared with occupiers enlightened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people.

He went on to say: They are filled with confusion, and especially at a time that our economy is suffering and our needs are not being met, the American people will ask for our forces to come home.

It was a very clear warning to Karzai that he has to tone down this anti-American rhetoric, which many see as inflaming the insurgency here.

SULLIVAN: Was there anything in particular that Karzai said that made Eikenberry so upset?

LAWRENCE: I think it was just coming at the end of two years here as ambassador, during which President Hamid Karzai has become more and more vocally anti-American. He constantly criticizes the U.S. for civilian casualties, and they sometimes do apologize for those cases. But sometimes, the comments he'll make - even, for example, yesterday when inside the capital city of Kabul, three suicide bombers killed 11 people right in the center of the city, and Karzai was instead condemning the coalition forces who are here, essentially, holding up his government.

SULLIVAN: We've seen those private cables, where Eikenberry criticized Karzai, that got leaked to the press. Why is he going so public this time?

LAWRENCE: Well, Ambassador Eikenberry's relationship with President Karzai has been at a low for a very long time, since Bob Woodward's book exposed that Eikenberry had speculated, perhaps, that President Karzai was mentally ill and sometimes on and off his meds; other WikiLeaks where Eikenberry was calling Karzai a very weak leader.

It seems that after months of Karzai's inflammatory speeches, perhaps Eikenberry was just - as he said - speaking from the heart at the end of his term here. Or perhaps he was sending a message from the White House to President Karzai that he can't keep on making these statements that some people here feel put American lives in danger.

SULLIVAN: Let's talk about Karzai's latest comments. Is the U.S. in peace talks with the Taliban?

LAWRENCE: Well, we've been hearing about this - rumors for months that there were contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban. President Karzai's statement yesterday, which came amid a sometimes contradictory speech, seemed to confirm it, at the highest level to date. And then today on one of the Sunday morning cable television shows, Secretary of Defense Gates actually confirmed it, that there were low-level, preliminary contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban.

SULLIVAN: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence from Kabul, Afghanistan. Thanks, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

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