KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan president was angry, and made no attempt to hide it.
“If (NATO) does not stop air strikes on Afghan homes, their presence in Afghanistan will be considered that of an occupying force,” said President Hamid Karzai, at a news conference in Kabul Tuesday morning. He paused a moment for effect.
“History has shown how Afghans deal with occupiers,” he said, in a muted but clear reference to the ignominious defeat of the once-mighty Soviet Union in the 1980s, as well as the several wars Afghanistan fought and won against Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Even from Karzai, who has demonstrated a rather emotional side in his many interactions with the press over the years, this was a bombshell.
Reporters are used to his rants and even to his tears, and are prone to dismiss them as so much grandstanding by a president who is seen by many as a puppet installed and controlled by the international community.
But these days the “puppet” seems intent on cutting the strings that bind him to his masters.
The cause of Karzai’s latest outburst was an airstrike by NATO forces on civilian housing compounds in Helmand province.
The attacks, which occurred on Saturday in the district of Nawzad, killed two women and 12 children, according to the provincial governor’s office.
Villagers from Nawzad brought the children’s bodies to Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, to demonstrate the clear innocence of the victims.
For Karzai, it was apparently the final straw.
“This is my last warning to the NATO forces: No more attacks on the homes of Afghans will be allowed," he said. "If they continue such operations to kill civilians, international forces will change to a force who is not fighting against terrorists but fighting against the Afghan people."
NATO has apologized for the deaths, while maintaining that they were justified in carrying out the attack on insurgents who had fired on them and then taken refuge in a civilian compound.
“Unfortunately, the compound the insurgents purposefully occupied was later discovered to house innocent civilians,” said a statement issued by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led coalition of 49 nations engaged in Afghanistan.
According to ISAF, nine civilians were killed, not the 14 claimed by the provincial government. No reason was immediately given for the discrepancy.
Afghanistan and the United States are operating under a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) first concluded in 2002 with the Transitional Government of Afghanistan, then headed by a newly crowned Hamid Karzai.
According to the Congressional Research Service, “The agreement with Afghanistan does not expressly authorize the United States to carry out military operations within Afghanistan, but it recognizes that such operations are ‘ongoing.’”
Karzai has made noises about renegotiating SOFA, but little has been done so far.
The United Nations says that insurgents cause the majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but it is the women and children killed by NATO bullets and bombs that incite the most fury.
Karzai has taken NATO to task several times over the issue. The military force has apologized for the deaths of civilians, while not backing down from their tactic of stepping up night raids and airstrikes in an effort to wear down the insurgency.
The Afghan president has turned up the rhetoric by several notches over the past few months, but today’s outburst was the most ominous yet.
ISAF has taken it in stride, however. In a carefully worded statement issued by Rear Admiral Vic Beck, ISAF’s director of public affairs, the military coalition stopped well short of promising to heed Karzai’s stern “warnings.”
Instead, the statement sought to bolster the credibility of the international forces while painting the Taliban as the major offenders.
"General Petraeus has repeatedly noted that every liberation force has to be very conscious that it can, over time, become seen as an occupation force. He has long stated that extending the "half-life" of the period during which an outside force is regarded positively by its partners and the people is very important,” read the statement.
“We are in agreement with President Karzai on the importance of constantly examining our actions in light of that reality — and we are doing just that. In fact, this year our efforts have reduced further loss of innocent civilian life in the conduct of Afghan and ISAF operations, although we continue to do everything we can to reduce them further.”
The problem, emphasized Beck, was the Taliban.
“According to the most recent ISAF civilian casualties statistics, the Taliban have caused 86 percent of all (civilian) casualties. The insurgents have repeatedly fired on medical evacuation aircraft, carried out suicide attacks in bazaars full of Afghan women and children — and this week attempted to use an Afghan ambulance as a suicide vehicle bomb."
But no amount of explanation or excuse is likely to defuse what has become a ticking bomb in the center of Afghan/international relations. Afghanistan is historically allergic to foreign occupation, and inflammatory statements by the Afghan president could certainly turn up the heat on popular discontent.
The problem, however, is that Afghanistan, like Karzai himself, is largely dependent on foreign troops for its security and foreign money for its fragile but growing economy.
While many, perhaps the overwhelming majority, Afghans have not benefited much from foreign largesse, there are hundreds of shopping malls, apartment buildings and businesses in the country that would not exist without the money that the international military and assistance workers bring with them.
Kabul is clogged with cars bought by those bringing in a hefty salary with international organizations, and Afghan depositors are keeping many banks afloat.
Few want to see the party end precipitously, even without the security concerns a hasty withdrawal would bring.
So Karzai’s bark could be very much worse than his bite, says Ahmad Saeedi, a political analyst and former Afghan diplomat.
“I think it’s only propaganda for the media,” he said. “It’s just to sway public opinion. No matter what Karzai says, if we look at our government, we have no economic, political, or military resources to back up this threat.”
Another problem, added Saeedi, is that Karzai does not have the unquestioned loyalty of his people.
“If Karzai were to call on the Afghan people to come and stand beside him, do you think they would support him? Looking at the corruption inside this government, are people ready to defend it? I don’t think so.”
Karzai, he said, seemed intent on “political suicide.”
An Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was similarly skeptical of the president’s warning.
“What can we do? Throw (NATO) out? No. And even if we could, then what? We have bad neighbors. We are divided internally. We are battling an insurgency. Karzai can do nothing. NATO will continue killing innocent people, they will continue night raids. Karzai cannot do a thing except talk.”