KABUL, Afghanistan – Two senior Afghan officials were showing President Hamid Karzai the evidence of the spectacular rocket attack on a nationwide peace conference earlier this month when Karzai told them that he believed the Taliban were not responsible.
"The president did not show any interest in the evidence – none – he treated it like a piece of dirt," said Amrullah Saleh, then the director of the Afghan intelligence service.
Saleh declined to discuss Karzai’s reasoning in more detail. But a prominent Afghan with knowledge of the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Karzai suggested in the meeting that it might have been the Americans who carried it out.
Minutes after the exchange, Saleh and the interior minister, Hanif Atmar, resigned – the most dramatic defection from Karzai’s government since he came to power nine years ago. Saleh and Atmar said they quit because Karzai made clear that he no longer considered them loyal.
But underlying the tensions, according to Saleh and Afghan and Western officials, was something more profound: That Karzai had lost faith in the Americans and NATO to prevail in Afghanistan.
For that reason, Saleh and other officials said, Karzai has been pressing to strike his own deal with the Taliban and the country’s archrival, Pakistan, the Taliban’s longtime supporter. According to a former senior Afghan official, Karzai’s maneuverings involve secret negotiations with the Taliban outside the purview of American and NATO officials.
"The president has lost his confidence in the capability of either the coalition or his own government to protect this country," Saleh said in an interview at his home. "President Karzai has never announced that NATO will lose, but the way that he does not proudly own the campaign shows that he doesn’t trust it is working."
People close to the president say he began to lose confidence in the Americans last summer, after national elections in which independent monitors determined that nearly one million ballots had been stolen on Karzai’s behalf. The rift worsened in December, when President Barack Obama announced that he intended to begin reducing the number of American troops by the summer of 2011.
"Karzai told me that he can’t trust the Americans to fix the situation here," said a Western diplomat in Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He believes they stole his legitimacy during the elections last year. And then they said publicly that they were going to leave."
Karzai could not be reached for comment Friday.
If Karzai’s resolve to work closely with the United States and use his own army to fight the Taliban is weakening, that could present a problem for Obama. The American war strategy rests largely on clearing ground held by the Taliban so that Karzai’s army and government can move in, allowing the Americans to scale back their involvement in an increasingly unpopular and costly war.
Relations with Karzai have been rocky for some time, and international officials have expressed concern in the past that his decision making can be erratic. Last winter, Karzai accused NATO in a speech of ferrying Taliban fighters around northern Afghanistan in helicopters. Earlier this year, following criticism by the Obama administration, Karzai told a group of supporters that he might join the Taliban.
American officials tried to patch up their relationship with Karzai during his visit to the White House last month. Indeed, on many issues, like initiating contact with some Taliban leaders and persuading its fighters to change sides, Karzai and the Americans are on the same page.
But their motivations appear to differ starkly. The Americans and their NATO partners are pouring tens of thousands of additional troops into the country to weaken hard-core Taliban and force the group to the bargaining table. Karzai appears to believe that the American-led offensive cannot work.
At a news conference at the Presidential Palace this week, Karzai was asked about the Taliban’s role in the June 4 attack on the loya jirga and his faith in NATO. He declined to address either one.
"Who did it?" Karzai said of the attack. "It’s a question that our security organization can bring and prepare the answer."
Asked if he had confidence in NATO, Karzai said he was grateful for the help and said the partnership was "working very, very well." But he did not answer the question.
"We are continuing to work on improvements all around," Karzai said, speaking in English and appearing next to David Cameron, the British prime minister.
A senior NATO official said the resignations of Atmar and Saleh, who had strong support from the NATO allies, were "extremely disruptive."
The official said of Karzai, "My concern is, is he capable of being a wartime leader?"
The NATO official said that American commanders had given Karzai a dossier showing overwhelming evidence that the attack on the peace conference had been carried out by fighters loyal to Jalalhuddin Haqqani, one of the main leaders fighting under the Taliban’s umbrella.
"There was no doubt," the official said.
The resignations of Saleh and Atmar revealed a deep fissure among Afghan leaders as to the best way to deal with the Taliban and with their patrons in Pakistan.
Saleh is a former aide to the late Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary commander who fought the Soviet Union and the Taliban. Many of Massoud’s former lieutenants, mostly ethnic Tajiks and now important leaders in northern Afghanistan, sat out the peace conference. Like Saleh, they favor a tough approach to negotiating with the Taliban and Pakistan.
Karzai, like the overwhelming majority of the Taliban, is an ethnic Pashtun. He appears now to favor a more conciliatory approach.
At the end of the loya jirga, Karzai announced the formation of a commission that would review the case of every Taliban fighter held in custody and release those who were not considered extremely dangerous. The commission, which would be led by several senior members of Karzai’s government, excluded the National Directorate of Security, the intelligence agency run by Saleh.
In the interview, Saleh said he took offense at the exclusion. His primary job is to understand the Taliban, he said; leaving his agency off the commission made him worry that Karzai might intend to release hardened Taliban fighters.
"His conclusion is – a lot of Taliban have been wrongly detained, they should be released," Saleh said. "We are 10 years into the collapse of the Taliban – it means we don’t know who the enemy is. We wrongly detain people."
Saleh also criticized the loya jirga. "Here is the meaning of the jirga," Saleh said. "I don’t want to fight you. I even open the door to you. It was my mistake to push you into the mountains. The jirga was not a victory for the Afghan state, it was a victory for the Taliban."
Karzai has been seeking to build bridges to the Taliban for months. Earlier this year, the president’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, held secret meetings with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy commander, according to a former senior Afghan official.
According to Gen. Hilaluddin Hilal, the deputy interior minister in an earlier Karzai government, Ahmed Wali Karzai and Baradar met twice in January near Spin Boldak, a town on the border with Pakistan. The meeting was brokered by Mullah Essa Khakrezwal, the Taliban’s shadow governor of Kandahar province, and Hafez Majid, a senior Taliban intelligence official, Hilal said.
A Western analyst in Kabul confirmed Hilal’s account. The senior NATO official said he was unaware of the meeting, as did Saleh. Ahmed Wali Karzai did not respond to e-mail queries on the meeting.
The resolution of that meeting was not clear, Hilal said. Baradar was arrested in late January in a joint Pakistani-American raid in Karachi, Pakistan. But Karzai’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban have continued, he said.
"He doesn’t think the Americans can afford to stay," Hilal said.
Saleh said that Karzai’s strategy also involved a more conciliatory line toward Pakistan. If true, this would amount to a sea change for Karzai, who has spent his nine years in office regularly accusing the Pakistanis of supporting the Taliban insurgency.
Saleh says he fears that Afghanistan will be forced into accepting what he called an "undignified deal" with Pakistan that will leave his country in a weakened state.
He said he considered Karzai a patriot. But he said the president was making a mistake if he planned to rely on Pakistani support. (Pakistani leaders have for years pressed Karzai to remove Saleh, whom they see as a hard-liner).
"They are weakening him under the disguise of respecting him. They will embrace a weak Afghan leader, but they will never respect him," Saleh said.