KABUL — President Hamid Karzai put a brave face Thursday on President Barack Obama's decision to start pulling out troops in mid-2011, telling The Associated Press in his first public response that it will push Afghans to take control of their own destiny.
But he blamed the United States for stalling peace overtures in the past and offered to talk directly with the Taliban's top leader.
Karzai appeared relaxed and confident throughout the exclusive AP interview — the Afghan president's first remarks since Obama's announcement Tuesday that he will send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next fall with the anticipation that they would start coming home in July 2011.
Karzai said the deadline, just 18 months away, is "not a concern for us — it is rather an impetus."
"For Afghans it's good that we are facing a deadline," he said. "We must begin to stand on our own feet. Even if it is with our own meager means — whatever those means may be. And we must begin to defend our own country.
"If we, the Afghan people, cannot defend our country, ourselves, against an aggressor from within or without, then no matter what the rest of the world does with us, it will not produce the desired results," he said during the one-hour interview at the turreted brick palace in the heavily guarded heart of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Republicans have objected to the setting of a hard deadline for withdrawing troops for fear it would encourage the Taliban to play a waiting game and say Obama must be willing to delay the start of a pullout if security deteriorates.
But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates told U.S. lawmakers Thursday that the July 2011 date is flexible. The White House said Obama set this date to make sure Karzai's government knows it has limited time to reform itself and take charge of security.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for a timetable for training Afghan security forces, battling police corruption and appointing nearly 400 provincial and district governors.
Karzai called Brown's remarks "very unfortunate and very artificial."
"It is extremely insulting," he said. "But it doesn't affect me and it doesn't affect the Afghan people."
The president offered talks with the Taliban, including its one-eyed leader, Mullah Omar, who has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head. Yet Karzai said overtures stood little chance of success without the support of the United States and its international partners.
He said his previous attempts to negotiate with insurgents were not fruitful because "sections of the international community undermined — not backed — our efforts."
On Tuesday, Obama said the U.S. must "open the door" to Taliban members who abandon violence as a way to turn the tide of an eight-year war that has killed more than 850 members of the U.S. military.
In Brussels on Thursday, Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, said reconciliation had been "on the back burner (but) it's now moving to the front burner."
But Karzai said he wants guarantees that those who are lured away from the Taliban aren't subjected to intimidation and their homes not raided by international forces or their Afghan partners.
Karzai also said he was fed up with the relentless criticism by world leaders of his government and the contentious August elections that returned him to power for another five years.
He said the allegations of corruption were exaggerated and that the criticism was motivated by political considerations. He accused "Western political circles" of trying to deny him re-election.
Karzai was forced to accept a runoff election after U.N.-backed auditors threw out nearly a third of his votes in the first ballot. Karzai was declared the winner last month after his sole challenger dropped out of the race, claiming a second ballot would be as fraudulent as the first.
"The Afghan elections were the best under the circumstances," he said. "We had no security in the south of the country. European observers called for the elections to be canceled even before the votes were counted.
"I am very sorry that the vote was insulted. I am very, very sorry and it angers me a lot that some Western political circles are still insulting the Afghans and calling this election fraudulent in order to weaken me or to weaken the Afghan government."
Karzai said he had no problems dealing with Holbrooke, with whom he reportedly had a heated meeting the day after the first round of the presidential election.
"I work government to government," Karzai said. "I don't work based on personal friendships. I want to have personal friendships. I have some personal friendships. I have no problem at all with Mr. Holbrooke, or any other official in any other government."
On other issues, he said the United States should promote good relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan — both of which face challenges from the Taliban and other Islamic extremist movements. Obama said a partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan was essential to bringing peace to the region.
Karzai also brushed off a remark by Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, who said last month: "Hamid Karzai knows very well that if U.S. troops leave, he'll be leaving shortly thereafter, or find himself probably assassinated."
"If Karzai is the leader of the Afghan people through a genuine election ... he should have no fear for his life once the foreign forces leave," Karzai said.
And the president said he had exhausted the discussion about Ahmed Wali Karzai, his controversial half brother who leads the provincial council in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Ahmed Wali Karzai has denied a raft of allegations, including that he is on the CIA payroll and is involved in drug trafficking.
"I have spoken to Western officials in the last five years repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly. I have written to them and they all come back to say they have nothing. They have nothing on him," Karzai said.
Karzai noted the irony of being urged to improve the rule of law in Afghanistan at the same time as being asked to oust his brother from his post.
"We're trying to make the president of Afghanistan behave like an absolute ruler," Karzai said. "The constitution does not allow the Afghan president to expel people from their districts."