Afghan President Hamid Karzai disputed President Obama's claim that Afghanistan once had a "blank check" from the U.S., but said he is grateful for the "little help" that has been sent to his war battered country.
Karzai staunchly defended his eight-year administration today in an exclusive interview with ABC's "World News" anchor Diane Sawyer.
Sawyer asked Karzai how he felt when he heard Obama criticize his government and tell Americans that the Afghan government will no longer have a "blank check" for U.S. assistance.
"Blank checks we never had, actually. We really never had a blank check," the Afghan president told Sawyer.
He complained that only 20 percent of developmental donations are funneled through the Afghan government, with the rest spent by the donors themselves.
"So we never had a blank check," Karzai said. "But we're grateful even for the little money that's come to Afghanistan, even for the little help that's come to Afghanistan."
He added, "We have no right over the American people to pay for us or to help us. This is our country. We must protect it ourselves and provide for it ourselves. So help from America is welcome. And even a penny is worth billions for us. In terms of gratitude, we are grateful for the help that we have received."
Since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to topple the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has spent $171 billion to keep the Taliban at bay and billions more for development. In addition, about 900 U.S. soldiers have died fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Many senior Afghan officials, including a government minister who spoke to Sawyer after her interview with Karzai, argue that only a fraction of the international community's money had been delivered to the government for development, less than $500 million per year. In a country whose GDP is half of Boise, Idaho's, government officials argue American money has been delivered with too many caveats and often not to the right people.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told ABC News, "The American people have made extraordinary sacrifices in Afghanistan, particularly our troops and military families. Going forward, the president has made it clear that there will be no blank check, and we will support those Afghan leaders and institutions that combat corruption and deliver for the Afghan people."
Karzai also rejected suggestions that corruption and what Gen. Stanley McChrystal called "a crisiis of confidence" in Karzai's ability to deliver services has undermined the effectiveness of his government.
"Well, the Taliban don't deliver any service at all. They never did," Karzai said. "The Afghan government is providing services. We provide electricity. We provide water. We provide health services. We provide education. We have a thriving marketplace in Afghanistan."
"When we came to power in 2002, Afghanistan's per capita income was a mere $150. Today, it's nearly $500," he argued.
"We had almost no schools, no universities. Today, we have nearly 7 million children going to school. We have from two or three universities that hardly functioned, we are nearly 15 universities, plus private universities in numerous numbers. And over 40,000 students in our universities. Our health service is a lot more better," Karzai said.
While the Obama administration has been harshly critical of Karzai, the Afghan president has complained loudly about U.S. attacks that have killed civilians.
The tension between the two allies surfaced several times during the interview. While Obama has indicated U.S. troops will begin withdrawing in 2011, Karzai repeated his assessment that his forces will need American combat help for another five years.
In recounting his successes, Karzai said, "The only area where we have not been able to show progress, where things have gone somehow backwards, is in terms of security and the war on terror."
He again urged the U.S. military to be careful saying, "The only thing that we want from America in this war on terror is to avoid civilian casualties, to avoid nightly raids on our homes, and don't take prisoners."
When asked what he wished he had done differently, Karzai replied, "A lot of things I wish I'd done differently, and a lot of things we requested, we informed the United States about to do differently, which it didn't do."
It was Karzai's most forceful public defense of his government since the fraud-tainted election in which prominent members of the Obama administration openly questioned whether Karzai was capable of uniting and leading the country at a time the U.S. was committing another 30,000 troops.
A fresh poll indicates that the popularity of Karzai's government is on the rebound.
The survey by ABC News, the BBC and ARD German TV found that 70 percent, a 30-point advance in views, that the country is headed in the right direction. That is the highest level of optimism since 2005.
Afghans' expectations that their own lives will be better a year from now have jumped by 20 points, to 71 percent, a new high. And there's been a 14-point rise in expectations that the next generation will have a better life, to 61 percent.
McChrystal also told Sawyer Monday that he felt the initial phases of the surge of U.S. troops was turning the tide against the Taliban.
ABC News' Nick Schifrin, Luis Martinez and Jake Tapper contributed to this report