KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai has frequently lashed out at the U.S. military for causing civilian casualties in its raids. But behind the scenes, he has been building a far broader case against the Americans, suggesting that they may have aided or conducted shadowy insurgent-style attacks to undermine his government, according to senior Afghan officials.
Karzai has formalized his suspicions with a list of dozens of attacks that he believes the U.S. government may have been involved in, according to one palace official. The list even includes the recent bomb and gun assault on a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, one of the bloodiest acts targeting the international community in Afghanistan, the official said. The attack, which left 21 people dead, including three Americans, was almost universally attributed to the Taliban.
But Karzai believes it was one of many incidents that may have been planned by Americans to weaken him and foment instability in Afghanistan, according to the senior palace official, who is sympathetic to the president’s view and spoke on the condition of anonymity. He acknowledged that his government had no concrete evidence of U.S. involvement and that the American role had not been formally confirmed.
U.S. officials, who have been informed of some of the claims, reacted with incredulity and anger to the idea that they are trying to debilitate Afghanistan’s government, which they have supported with hundreds of billions of dollars.
“It’s a deeply conspiratorial view that’s divorced from reality,” U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham said Monday. He suggested that one reason for the allegations might be to “throw us off balance.”
Hard to reach deal
The revelation of Karzai’s list helps explain why it has been so hard to conclude a security agreement that would leave thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the formal end of American military operations this year. Many U.S. and Afghan officials believe that accord is vital to this country’s long-term stability, but the Afghan leader has not signed it.
U.S. officials and analysts offer a variety of theories for why Karzai has come to accuse his American counterparts of deeply insidious behavior. Conscious of his legacy, he might be looking to raise his profile by confronting a superpower, some say. Or, in shifting suspicion for major attacks from the Taliban to the United States, he might be trying to endear himself to the insurgents in hopes of a reconciliation, others speculate.
The senior palace official said that the president began keeping the list several years ago to catalogue what were seen as suspicious incidents that might involve the U.S. government and that he added a slew of new ones over the past year.
Senior Afghan officials have provided no evidence of a U.S. role in the attacks on the list, which include an assault on a Justice Ministry building in Kabul and another on a courthouse in the western province of Farah that left more than 50 people dead.
The palace declined to comment on the record about the allegations.
The Taliban has publicly claimed responsibility for many incidents on Karzai’s list, including the massacre at the restaurant.
“It flies in the face of logic and morality to think that we would aid the enemy we’re trying to defeat,” said Cunningham, who added that he was aware of such allegations but had not directly heard such charges from Karzai.
Suspicion and distrust
Top Afghan officials say that in the past, Karzai or his advisers have shared such allegations with high-level U.S. officials.
“The suspicion and the current environment of distrust is framed by the sad experiences of the past,” said the senior palace official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the allegations.
He said the suspicion of American involvement came from investigations and “the pattern of the attacks” — suggesting that the complex, insurgent-style assaults often happened shortly after U.S. airstrikes left civilians dead in other areas and might have been aimed at drawing attention away from those casualties.
Palace officials dismissed the Taliban’s claims of responsibility for many of the attacks.
“It has never, ever been verified if such statements are not fake and foreign intelligence agencies are not behind such statements,” said the senior palace official.
For its part, the Taliban disputed the palace’s account of possible U.S. involvement in the attacks.
“Whatever claims we make, those are attacks that have genuinely been carried out by our forces,” spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a phone interview.
In the wake of the Jan. 17 bombing of the popular La Taverna du Liban restaurant, which sent a shock wave through the expatriate community in Kabul, the palace issued a statement blaming “foreign intelligence services.” Most observers assumed that was a veiled reference to Pakistan, which is often accused of aiding the Taliban. But Afghan officials now say the language was intentionally vague, to reflect what they saw as possible U.S. involvement.
Karzai and some of his senior advisers suspect that the attack could have been carried out to distract attention from a U.S. airstrike in Parwan province, north of Kabul, which had left several Afghan civilians dead two days earlier, according to the senior palace official.
Deadly attacks like the one on the restaurant are “too sophisticated to be the handiwork of (the) Taliban,” he added.
Senior Afghan officials even considered a public statement that would have made their suspicions of American involvement more explicit, according to the palace official and U.S. sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.
After previous attacks, the government’s suspicions were fueled by local witnesses who “shared what they have witnessed about U.S. involvement with the insurgency,” said the senior palace official.
But Afghan investigations of such attacks have recently been called into question, particularly after The New York Times found last week that a 2009 photo was presented in an Afghan investigative dossier as evidence of damage caused by the U.S. airstrike in Parwan this month.
Privately, many U.S. officials wonder whether Karzai even believes his most incendiary contentions or if they are part of an effort to gain politically by demonizing American troops and diplomats.
“Any suggestion that the U.S. has been involved in any way in suicide attacks or deliberate attacks on Afghan civilians is ludicrous,” said Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. “We have spent 12 years trying to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan in the face of threats from terrorist and insurgent networks. ... To suggest otherwise does a grave disservice to those who have sacrificed for the people of Afghanistan.”
The one point both the Afghan and American sides seem to agree on is that relations have deteriorated during the last months of Karzai’s presidency. Congress recently sharply curtailed development aid and military assistance plans for Afghanistan ahead of the U.S. pullout.
While his skepticism of the U.S. mission appears to have reached a fever pitch, Karzai has long been known for controversial public statements. Last year, he appeared to imply that Americans were collaborating with insurgents, claiming that a recent Taliban attack “showed that (insurgents) are at the service of America” in attempting to destabilize Afghanistan.