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updated 4/5/2010 4:25:45 PM ET 2010-04-05T20:25:45

President Hamid Karzai's startling threat to join the Taliban if foreigners don't stop meddling in Afghanistan and his strident criticism of the West's role in his country have worsened relations with Washington at a time when the U.S. military wants closer cooperation ahead of a potentially decisive offensive this summer.

Karzai, who has been fuming for months about what he considers Washington's heavy hand, is gambling that blaming outsiders for the troubles in a society with a long tradition of resisting occupation will bolster his stature at home — while carrying little risk because the U.S. has no choice but to deal with the mercurial leader.

Yet the strains are clear. They threaten President Barack Obama's strategy of working with a strong, reliable Afghan partner to turn back a resurgent Taliban.

"Troubling" is how White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described reports Monday that Karzai threatened to abandon the political process and join the Taliban insurgency if the West keeps carping at him to reform his government.

"On behalf of the American people, we're frustrated with the remarks," Gibbs told reporters.

"These comments can undercut the kind of support that we think we need on all sides of this equation if we're going to move forward," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "Clearly, you know, what he says does have an impact back here in the United States and he should choose his words carefully."

Karzai has long chafed under what he considers excessive international pressure. Those complaints escalated Thursday when he lashed out against the U.N. and the international community, accusing them of perpetrating a "vast fraud" in last year's presidential polls as part of a conspiracy to deny him re-election or tarnish his victory — accusations the U.S. and the United Nations have denied.

Two days later, Karzai told a group of parliament members that if foreign interference in his government continues, the Taliban would become a legitimate resistance — one that he might even join, according to several lawmakers present.

"He said that 'if I come under foreign pressure, I might join the Taliban,'" said Farooq Marenai, who represents the eastern province of Nangarhar. "He said rebellion" against a legitimate Afghan government "would change to resistance" against foreign occupation.

Two other parliament members gave the same account but asked that their names not be published to avoid problems with Karzai.

Calls to two Karzai spokesmen went unanswered because their mobile phones were shut off.

'We run this country'
Karzai told CNN on Monday that he has no intention of breaking with Washington, which is pouring 30,000 more troops into the fight against the Taliban.

"It's just to make sure that we all understand as to where each one of us stands," Karzai said. "Afghanistan is the home of Afghans and we own this place. And our partners are here to help in a cause that's all of us. We run this country, the Afghans."

The lawmakers agreed that the threat to join the Taliban did not appear serious but reflected Karzai's anger over U.S. and international pressure on several issues, including electoral reform, combating corruption and contacts with Taliban insurgents.

Those differences were sharpened by Obama's unannounced visit to Kabul on March 28. In advance of the trip, Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, told reporters that Karzai needed once and for all to confront corruption and "be seized with how important that is." Karzai's advisers found the public tongue-lashing humiliating — especially coming from a guest.

At the same time, the U.S. and its partners have been urging Karzai to reform the electoral system to avoid the corruption that marked the Aug. 20 presidential balloting, when a third of the president's votes were thrown out by a U.N.-backed anti-fraud watchdog.

That forced him under U.S. pressure to accept an embarrassing runoff, which was called off when his remaining challenger complained that the second election would be no cleaner than the first. The U.S. and its partners want changes in place by September, when Afghans choose a new parliament.

Karzai associates have said the president considers Western complaints of corruption a smoke screen to discredit his government and draw attention from the fact that most of the billions in international aid have been squandered by the donors themselves and not wasted by his government.

Last February, Karzai issued a presidential decree taking control of the anti-fraud body and removing U.N.-appointed foreigners from any watchdog role.

Karzai's outbursts over the past week came after the parliament overturned the decree, a move the president believed was in response to international pressure.

Moreover, Karzai has been frustrated by the reluctance of the U.S. to endorse negotiations with the Taliban leadership. The Obama administration is keen to offer incentives to rank-and-file Taliban fighters to switch sides but believes negotiations with insurgent leaders are pointless as long as the insurgents believe they are winning.

Karzai suspects the U.S. or the Pakistanis engineered the arrest in February of the Taliban's No. 2 commander, with whom the Afghan leader had been in communication, as a way to cut off or take control of the negotiations, according to Karzai aides. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was confidential.

Nevertheless, Karzai's remarks have raised concern among some parliament members, who fear he may overplay his hand by undercutting public support in the United States for the war.

"This was an irresponsible speech by President Karzai," lawmaker Sardar Mohammad Rahman Ogholi said of Thursday's remarks. "Karzai is feeling isolated and without political allies. ... The fight against terrorism, corruption, and narcotics requires a strong government. Unfortunately, the Karzai government is far too weak to fight all these elements."

The friction comes at a time when the U.S. and NATO are preparing for the war's most challenging offensive — a major bid to drive the Taliban from Kandahar, the biggest city in the south, the insurgents' spiritual birthplace and the Karzai family's hometown. U.S. commanders believe control of Kandahar is key to defeating the Taliban and that the operation could be the decisive campaign of the war.

But U.S. commanders have said repeatedly that the operation cannot succeed without improvements in local governance to win over public support. To do that, NATO needs the backing of Karzai, who is also chief of a tribe that lives in the Kandahar area.

Efforts to sideline ineffectual local leaders could put NATO in conflict with the interests of the Karzai family, including the president's wheeler-dealer half brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, who heads the local provincial council.

Yet the West has little choice but to work with the unpredictable president, whom Washington and its allies hand-picked after the fall of the Taliban nearly nine years ago and who began a second five-year term only four months ago. In a country without established political parties, there are few credible alternatives to support.

On Sunday, Karzai flew to Kandahar with a delegation of top NATO figures for a meeting, or shura, with about 2,000 officials and tribal leaders. He promised that there would be no offensive without community support.

U.S. commanders were pleased that Karzai appeared ready to do his part — for now.

"Karzai acknowledged he's the commander in chief, that's helpful," Maj. Gen. William Mayville, NATO deputy chief of staff for operations, said after the meeting. "You've got to have the community really wanting in, otherwise things are stalled. ... Karzai's convinced, he's onboard. We would not have had this (meeting) if he wasn't convinced this is the right stuff."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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