A leaked diplomatic cable has jeopardized the US ambassador's relationships with key Afghan ministers at a time when ties between the two nations are strained over corruption at the highest levels of the government and stepped-up military operations, a top Afghan official said on Saturday.
Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal, who is well-respected by the international community, vehemently denied that he called President Hamid Karzai "an extremely weak man" as reported in a Feb. 26 cable written by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. The cable went on to quote Zakhilwal as saying that Karzai "did not listen to facts but was instead easily swayed by anyone who came to him to report even the most bizarre stories of plots against him."
Zakhilwal delivered his blistering remarks against the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul just hours after President Barack Obama's surprise trip to Afghanistan to bolster troop morale.
The report is "absolutely, categorically wrong and false," Zakhilwal said at a news conference at the Finance Ministry. Zakhilwal said he offered to resign, but that Karzai asked him to stay, saying he didn't believe that he could have said such a thing. He said the cable, part of a vast tranche of files released by the WikiLeaks website, has not only hurt Eikenberry's relationship with him, but with other key ministers in the government. The rift sparked by the WikiLeaks release comes less than two weeks before Obama is to address Americans about a new review of U.S. strategy to defeat the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan government so American troops can begin leaving next year. Eikenberry, a longtime critic of Karzai who once commanded troops in Afghanistan, operates quietly behind the scenes in Afghanistan, yet he is the front line diplomat dealing with Karzai and the dispute could make it harder for him to push his agenda with Afghan officials.
"It certainly will not be business as usual between some ministers and the ambassador," Zakhilwal said.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said the Americans were working in private to overcome any issues. "We are determined not to allow the reckless actions of WikiLeaks to harm the strong and strategic relationships we have built over many years with many members of the government of Afghanistan," she said in a statement.
She did not address Zakhilwal's allegation that Eikenberry misquoted him in the cable to further the ambassador's own opinion that Karzai is not a reliable partner.
In a different cable leaked in November 2009, Eikenberry warned against sending substantial numbers of additional troops because Karzai was "not an adequate strategic partner." That cable raised speculation that Eikenberry could be replaced because the cable might have damaged his relations with Karzai, but Obama stuck with the ambassador.
"The views of Eikenberry are well-known," Zakhilwal said. "The ambassador has used my name to support his views of the president." In a raised voice, Zakhilwal said, "I find this extremely unprofessional. ... I find this extremely undiplomatic, and to be honest with you, I am extremely saddened. And this leaves no trust between me and the ambassador - extremely little trust." The international community's trust in the Karzai government has eroded too. For days, news reports have revealed cable after cable alleging corruption among Afghanistan's political elite and power brokers - information that makes it harder for NATO troop-contributing nations to retain already dwindling public support for the war, which is in its 10th year.
Karzai questioned the validity of all the leaked cables. "I can assure you that Zakhilwal, our finance minister, has not said such things to Americans," he said at a joint news conference at the palace with Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. He also cast doubt on an Oct. 19, 2009, diplomatic message saying that the United Arab Emirates had revealed it had stopped former Afghan Vice President Ahmad Zia Masood entering the country with $52 million earlier in 2009. He was allowed to keep most of the money "without revealing the money's origin or destination," according to the document.
"The American government has been talking to us everyday about corruption - every day they come and give us examples," Karzai said. "How come they did not report to (me) the president about $52 million?"
Gilani also was peppered with questions about the diplomatic cables, which expose America's troubled alliance with Pakistan, U.S. doubts about the capabilities of the country's weak government and concern that Islamist militants might gain access to Pakistan's nuclear material. Gilani played down the leaked documents. "First of all, I will (ask) you not to trust WikiLeaks," Gilani told reporters. "I don't know why you are making up your minds from the words of junior officers."