(CNSNews.com) – The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan warned Sunday that the American people are growing weary of being viewed as “occupiers” by the leaders of a country where so much American blood has been spilled.
Karl Eikenberry’s candid and impassioned remarks came a day after President Hamid Karzai in a televised speech accused U.S.-led foreign troops of being in the country “for their own national interests.”
On Sunday, Karzai met with Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi – on the first ever official visit by Iran’s top defense official – and the two discussed problems arising from “the presence of foreign forces” in Afghanistan, according to reports in Iranian state media. Last week Karzai held talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of a Eurasian summit in Kazakhstan, and similar sentiments were expressed.
More than 1,500 U.S. troops have lost their lives in Afghanistan – some 177 this year alone – since U.S.-led forces invaded to topple the Taliban regime following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. More than 900 military personnel from other nations have been killed over that period.
There are around 100,000 American troops deployed in Afghanistan, and the first in a series of phased withdrawals is due to take place in the coming weeks.
Without mentioning Karzai by name, Eikenberry took aim Sunday at the increasingly harsh anti-coalition rhetoric emanating from the president, calling it “hurtful and inappropriate.” The ambassador, who will leave his post over the summer, made the remarks at the end of a speech on the future of U.S.-Afghan relations, delivered to several hundred students at Herat University.
“When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost in terms of lives and treasure, when they hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they’re only here to advance their own interest, and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people, my people in turn are filled with confusion and they grow weary of our effort here,” Eikenberry said.
“Mothers and fathers of fallen soldiers, spouses of soldiers who have lost arms and legs, children of those who’ve lost their lives in this country – they ask themselves about the meaning of their loved one’s sacrifice,” he continued. “I have to tell you, when I hear some of your leaders call us occupiers, I cannot look at these mourning parents, these mourning spouses, these mourning children, and give them any kind of comforting reply.”
Eikenberry conceded that that the “learning curve has been steep” in what is a “complex” situation. “But – in spite of our mistakes – we are a good people whose aim is to help improve our mutual security by strengthening your government, army and police, and economy.”
He went on to list some of the accomplishments, including the building of schools, clinics, roads, power stations, investment in educational training and in the agricultural field, promoting trade and reviving culture, music and sport.
“Yet, when we hear ourselves being called occupiers and worse, our pride is offended and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on,” he told the Herat University students.
“At the point your leaders believe that we are doing more harm than good, when we reach a point that we feel our soldiers and civilians are being asked to sacrifice without a just cause, and our generous aid programs dismissed as totally ineffective and the source of all corruption … especially at a time our economy is suffering and our needs are not being met, the American people will ask for our forces to come home.”
Relations between Kabul and the coalition have been strained over a number of issues, particularly civilian casualties. The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported 368 conflict-related Afghan civilian deaths in May, attributing 82 percent of them to “anti-government elements” and 12 percent to “pro-government forces.”
Rules have been tightened to reduce the risk of civilian deaths, but Karzai late last month lashed out again at the U.S. and NATO over civilian casualties, especially those arising out of nighttime raids targeting insurgents.
“If they continue their attacks on our houses, then their presence will change from a force that is fighting against terrorism to a force that is fighting against the people of Afghanistan,” he told a May 31 press conference in Kabul. “And in that case, history shows what Afghans do with trespassers and with occupiers.”