WASHINGTON: Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai questioned the reliability of the United States as a partner on Sunday, as he fought off criticism of his government's legitimacy following fraud-marred elections.
Karzai's main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, warned in an interview with CNN that the US strategy will not succeed without a credible partner in Kabul, blaming Karzai for deteriorating conditions.
But underscoring the political headache that Washington faces if Karzai wins a run-off against Abdullah next month, Karzai pointed the finger at the United States in a separate, pre-recorded CNN interview.
Is the United States a reliable partner with Afghanistan? Is the West a reliable partner with Afghanistan?" Karzai asked. "Have we received the commitments that we were given? Have we been treated like a partner?"
Karzai said a partnership to him was "where the Afghan lives are respected, where Afghan property is respected, where the Afghan traditions are respected, where we know the direction we are moving to".
The comments appeared to allude to Karzai's longstanding criticism of civilian deaths in US air strikes, and to President Barack Obama's still unresolved review of US strategy and his commander's request for up to 40,000 more US troops.
Abdullah said more troops were needed to stabilise the country. But he said that after eight years of war, Afghanistan should have been in position to ask for fewer troops, not more.
"We are not there. Why? Because of the failures of the current administration in Afghanistan," he told CNN.
"Any success for the US strategy in Afghanistan will depend on the credibility of your partner, on the legitimacy of your partner," he added.
Abdullah suggested that only his own victory in November's head-to-head contest against Karzai will set his country on a path toward viability and better relations with international partners in Washington and around the world.
"Hopefully, this runoff... whenever it takes place, will provide the United States and the international community with such a partner," he said.
"There is no doubt that the partnership has not been working quite well in the past few months or few years," he said, adding that without a credible partner, "I don't see a successful strategy in Afghanistan."
Still, he said, "if Mr Karzai is elected through a transparent and credible process, I will be the first person to... wholeheartedly congratulate him and wish him well in this country, in being the opposition."
Abdullah officially won 30.59 per cent of the August 20 first round vote, but Karzai agreed to a run-off after more than one million ballots were discounted due to fraud, leaving him short of the 50 percent required for outright victory.
With Obama in the throes of a critical decision on a major escalation in Afghanistan, administration officials have pointed to the disputed elections as an impediment to a deepening US involvement.
But Karzai said charges of election fraud had been blown out of proportion.
"There were some mistakes, there were some incidents of fraud," he said. But he maintained that "the election as a whole was clean, and as a result was clear".
Karzai said that now that a November 7 runoff vote has been scheduled, "whatever happens, this election must present a clear result and that result must be respected".
Meanwhile, leading US lawmakers said on Sunday it remains an open question whether a new Karzai administration can help put Afghanistan on the road to greater stability.
Democratic Senator Ben Nelson said the US administration will have no choice but to work with a re-elected Karzai government, to "root out all that corruption and help them bring about an efficient government in the delivery of the services to the people, as well as the security".
Meanwhile, Abdullah said Obama was right to take his time in reaching a decision on troops, saying he understood that the US leader is "studying the situation in a critical time".
But he expressed concern about the country's security situation in the few weeks preceding the vote. "In some parts of the country, the war is going on; insurgency has taken root," he said. "As a whole, security situation is not good."