The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is warning U.S. and other NATO troops to watch their backs because recent inflammatory comments by Afghan President Hamid Karzai may prompt Afghans to "lash out" against foreign troops.
The warning, known as a direct threat advisory, was issued by Gen. Joseph Dunford on Wednesday. A part of the advisory includes a strongly worded warning that increasing tensions with Karzai could directly put troops in harm's way.
"His (Karzai's) remarks could be a catalyst for some to lash out against our forces," the advisory states. "He may also issue orders that put our forces at risk."
The International Security and Assistance Force in Kabul would not release the advisory in its entirety, but a military official told ABC News portions of it published earlier in the New York Times were accurate.
Ten years ago, such a warning would have been unthinkable, that Karzai, a longtime U.S. ally widely seen as coming to power on the heels of tremendous American support, would adopt an apparently anti-U.S. stance. But a series of attacks and political standoffs this week appear to have further shaken what is now clearly a deteriorating relationship.
On Saturday, a pair of suicide bombers struck in Kabul and Khost, killing nearly 20 Afghan civilians. The Kabul attack took place outside the Ministry of Defense, one of the most heavily fortified buildings complexes in the country. The attack coincided with a visit by Chuck Hagel, his first as U.S. Secretary of Defense. Though Hagel was on a nearby U.S. military base at the time and never in harm's way, the Taliban claimed they did it "to send a message to him."
The following day, in a nationally televised speech, Karzai lashed out at both the Taliban and the United States, implying both were promoting instability in Afghanistan as an excuse to justify foreign troop presence after 2014, when combat operations come to an end.
"Yesterday's bombings in Khost and Kabul were not aimed at showing their strength to the USA but to serve the USA," Karzai said.
"Yesterday's bombings in the name of the Taliban were aimed at serving the foreigners and supporting the presence of the foreigners in Afghanistan and keeping them in Afghanistan by intimidating us."
The comments drew a sharp rebuke from U.S. officials
"We have fought too hard over the past 12 years, we have shed too much blood over the last 12 years, to ever think that violence or instability would be to our advantage," Dunford said.
More than 2,000 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001.
Later that day, a joint-press conference between Hagel and Karzai was cancelled. A Karzai spokesperson said the cancellation was due to "scheduling pressures," but a Pentagon spokesperson cited security concerns. The cancellation was widely seen as a U.S. snub to Karzai, in response to his comments.
On Monday, another so-called insider attack at a police training facility further strained tensions. U.S. and Afghan officials say a rogue Afghan soldier jumped into the back of a pickup truck and began firing a roof-mounted machine gun, killing two U.S. Special Operations Force members and several Afghans. The attack took place in Wardak province one day after the expiration of a deadline Karzai had set for all U.S. Special Operations Forces to leave. Karzai accused U.S.-trained and supported Afghan militias who work alongside the Special Forces of harassing, torturing, and murdering innocent civilians – claims backed up by a number of villagers.
The following day, Karzai lashed out again, repeating his allegations to an audience in Helmand province that the Taliban were serving U.S. interests.
"The Taliban use special planes to fly abroad and hold talks with foreigners, drinking tea and coffee, then come to Kabul and kill innocent people. They say 'we're showing them (the U.S.) our power,' but this serves them."
Karzai has a history of inflammatory remarks – he once threatened to join the Taliban himself – but his recent speeches appear to have caught many off guard. They come as Karzai and U.S. officials appear increasingly at odds over the fate of the Parwan detention facility. Karzai has demanded the entire facility and all detainees be handed over to Afghan control, citing it as a matter of Afghan sovereignty. The U.S. has so far refused, saying Karzai's plan to release some of the detainees would put troops in harm's way. Karzai says the detainees are innocent, while the coalition insists some are hardcore militants who would return to join the insurgency.
A long-promised handover of the prison from U.S. to Afghan control was postponed this week, seen as yet another snub to Karzai. In a tersely worded statement from Karzai's palace following a meeting with Dunford on Wednesday, he warned that his decision on the prison was final and that "any more delays could harm bilateral relations" between Afghanistan and the United States.
In response, a coalition statement said the transfer would only occur if it mitigated "the real threats that some of these detainees pose to Afghan and Coalition forces."
"We will complete the transfer when the remaining issues have been resolved," Dunford said in the statement, yet another apparent snub after Karzai's insistence the facility be transferred immediately.