ormer Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sharply criticised new authorities giving U.S. troops greater freedom to conduct air strikes against Taliban insurgents, saying they were a further erosion of the country’s sovereignty.
In an interview, Karzai, who continues to exert considerable behind-the-scenes influence on Afghan politics, also called on the Islamist militant movement to be more realistic in its demands that have contributed to stalled peace talks.
His comments on American involvement in the war were at odds with the government of his successor, President Ashraf Ghani, which has welcomed U.S. political and military support.
“How could the U.S. president authorize troops to go and on their own launch attacks in Afghanistan, don’t we have a government here? aren’t we a sovereign country? don’t we own this country? is the U.S. president in charge of Afghanistan or we in charge of this country? That charge must retain to Afghans then I am sure things will move in right direction that charge is not now with Afghans, It isn’t,” said former President Hamid Karzai in an interview with Reuters.
The new authorities, which U.S. officials say were agreed with the Afghan government, affect ground operations where U.S. troops provide support to Afghan forces as well as air combat, and Karzai has long been critical of U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan, be they by fighter jets, helicopters or drones.
He would ban them altogether, even though the Afghan armed forces, who are struggling to contain the insurgency, say they could not cope without support from the skies and want more.
The former leader’s opposition reflects broader unease among Afghans, many of whom believe too many innocent people have been killed in air attacks targeting militants, unease that is likely to grow with new powers granted to the U.S. military.
The U.S. says its air strikes support Afghan operations and it takes extreme care to avoid civilian casualties, despite incidents such as the bombing of a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz last year in which 42 people died.
Calling Afghanistan the victim of a 21st century version of the “Great Game” between competing powers on the 19th century borders of British India, Karzai squarely blamed the United States and Pakistan for “a war that is not ours”.
However, he added that he wanted to reshape the partnership between Kabul and Washington, not end an alliance which brought him to power 14 years ago and still ensures billions of dollars in aid and military support every year.
“I want to be allies with the United States, I want to be partners with the United States,” he said. “But it must be a partnership, not a master-and-slave relationship.
“We must remain the owners of this house, the United States of America, a guest.”
As for the Taliban, Karzai said he had seen little change in their tactics since the death of former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a U.S. drone strike on Pakistani soil in May.
He appealed to the Taliban “as fellow Afghans to recognize that this is their country” and to break free of the influence of Pakistan, which despite frequent denials, is blamed by Afghanistan for supporting the insurgency.
“Here I believe the only thing I can say is an appeal to the Taliban as fellow Afghans to recognize that this is their country and the way I want the Afghan lead and Afghan government to be in depend of foreign influence, the same way and more strongly I would ask Taliban I would call the Taliban to be free from foreign influence in this case Pakistan and the Pakistan intelligence and military, not to be in their service and to return to their own country and with their brothers and sisters and with the Afghan people and work for peace and stability of Afghanistan,” Karzai said.
He added that they had to be more realistic in their demands to make peace talks possible.
Despite suspicions among some close to the government that he wants to destabilize Ghani, Karzai said he expected the U.S.-backed government to serve its full five-year term.
“The government should know that nobody is going to ask them to go away. We want them to complete their term, we want them to complete the five years, but the country needs a voice, the country needs to regain its confidence,” Karzai said.
To do that, he called for a loya jirga.
“The loya jirga is an expression of authority of the Afghan people. Things must return to the ownership of the Afghan people,” said Karzai, who has a deep network of political connections throughout the country.
“It’s an institution for a time of crisis and we are in crisis.”
The 58-year-old dismissed suggestions that such a gathering, including opponents and allies of the government, could undermine stability and weaken an administration that has struggled to overcome internal rivalries.
Adding to the challenges, the Taliban have stepped up their insurgency, while thousands of young people, unable to find work, prefer to risk a perilous journey to seek a better life in Europe.