ISLAMABAD, Pakistan April 7, 2010— -- Designer Tom Ford once called him the "chic-est man on the planet." Former President George Bush said he had "a lot of strength and character." And the Washington Post once opined he has "the natural sex appeal of a Sean Connery."
If those words – uttered and written between 2002 and 2006 -- were the best of times for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, United States officials hope these days are the worst of times.
Karzai has "surprised" and "dismayed" the United States over the last week, according to one official, launching rhetorical missiles at a country that has spent $300 billion in Afghanistan and will soon station 100,000 troops there.
The massive gulf that has opened between the two countries because of two recent Karzai outbursts threatens the entire effort in Afghanistan, U.S. civilian officials believe, since they need an effective partnership with a credible Afghan leader to whittle away at the insurgency. They want the gulf to widen no more, but they fear 2010 will be a difficult year.
"It's going to be a bumpy ride, and I don't think that's going to stop being the case for a while," said one U.S. official, requesting anonymity to speak more freely. "Everyone has to tighten their seat belts. I don't think this is the last we're going to hear of this."
Washington has heard Karzai's criticism of the West loud and clear since last Thursday, when he made what the State Department later described as a "preposterous claim."
"There was fraud in the presidential and provincial council elections – there is no doubt that there was very massive fraud, very massive, but not by Afghans. Foreigners carried out the fraud," Karzai said at the Afghan Independent Electoral Commission, which oversees election results.
Given the chance to take back his comments publicly, Karzai declined, telling the BBC, "What I said about the election was all true." "That the US carried out the fraud?" reporter Lyse Douset asked. "That's exactly what happened," Karzai responded.
Two days after that outburst, Karzai went even further, telling members of parliament that the United States was beginning to act like an occupier.
Karzai Says He May Have to Join Taliban
One member of parliament present at the meeting said Karzai was so angry, the president implied he might have to join the Taliban if the United States does not stop "meddling."
"'If I am not able to [change an electoral law], and I can't uphold the sovereignty of this country, this will be turning into an occupation. We have to fight an occupation, and one has to join them,'" the lawmaker quoted Karzai as saying. By using the word "occupation," Karzai seemed to be aligning himself rhetorically with the Taliban, who try to convince Afghans to fight a nationalist insurgency against a foreign invader.
The recent defiance by Karzai has prompted his critics to question his stability.
Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former foreigner minister and rival in the recent presidential election, worried this week that Karzai's statements hinted at erratic behavior.
"As a former colleague and doctor, I think this is beyond a normal attitude," Abdullah said.
Peter Galbraith, a former deputy U.N. official in Afghanistan who clashed with Karzai and is the main target of the president's current wrath, suggested Karzai was an impediment to progress.
"As long as he's there, as long as the system operates the way it does, we aren't going to accomplish our mission," Galbraith told ABC News. "And therefore, we shouldn't be risking the lives of our soldiers and risking our money in Afghanistan."
Lawmakers disagreed on how serious Karzai was when he made the Taliban crack, but the comment was widely reported, prompting Karzai's spokesman to deny that it was said.
"The government of Afghanistan -- of which President Karzai is the democratically elected president -- has made fighting against terror and fighting against those who put the lives of Afghan people in danger as priority number one, and, in that context, that comment, whoever has come up with that comment – it does not make sense," Waheed Omar told reporters in Kabul today.
Omar also threw an olive branch toward the West when he announced the resignation of two officials whom Karzai had praised during last Thursday's speech: the chairman and deputy chairman of the Independent Electoral commission.
Karzai and Gen. McChrystal Agree
During last fall's presidential election, Western officials and Karzai's political opponents described the commission as full of Karzai cronies out to rig the election for him.
But the damage had already been done before today. The United States clearly felt stung by Karzai's comments, and it wasn't clear that the resignations calmed the mood, perhaps out of fear their replacements will voice the same policies.
At the White House Tuesday, President Obama's spokesman warned Karzai's planned May visit might be called off, and he refused to call Karzai an "ally" when pressed to do so.
The U.S. official put it this way: "We've tried to make him understand the danger of these comments not only to us and to our relationship to him, but also to his ability to be an effective president. It doesn't go down very well with the parents of those who died fighting to keep him in power."
Beyond the divide, U.S. officials acknowledge they don't have much of a choice: the United States commitment in Afghanistan is increasing dramatically in the next few months, and unless the White House reverses those plans, it has no choice but to need a willing and competent partner in Kabul.
"He feels like he has the room to maneuver to say these kinds of things," the U.S. official said.
That is reflected by a curious aspect of the current U.S. relationship with Karzai: the military seems much more sanguine about him than the diplomats.
On Sunday Karzai invited Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of all foreign forces in Afghanistan, with him to a meeting with tribal elders in Kandahar, the largest city in the Taliban-dominated south.
Karzai and McChrystal had a private conversation -- which U.S. military officials would not disclose the details of -- but in public, the two seemed on the same page, trying to convince locals that a massive military surge planned for the areas around the city would help improve security.
Karzai and McChrystal, one U.S. military official said, have "an enduring partnership" and a "good relationship that tends to focus on security issues, where there's a lot of common ground."
But the military also sees an aspect to the relationship that their civilian counterparts will certainly hope proves more important than two anti-Western speeches: "We focus on what's done," said the military official, "instead of what's said."