KABUL – KABUL — After days of discord, U.S. officials on Sunday went one step further in their new gentler approach to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, expressing sympathy for the pressure he faces and promoting him as commander in chief of the warring nation.
U.S.-Afghan relations grew tense last week when Karzai, seeking to bolster his own political stature, 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 continued, the Taliban would become a legitimate resistance -- one that he might even join, according to several lawmakers present.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described Karzai's remarks as "troubling." But the American tone quickly softened. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates blitzed Sunday morning television news shows in the U.S. to call Karzai a reliable partner.
"I have to say that some of these outlandish claims that are being made and accusations that are being hurled are really unfortunate," Clinton told CBS' "Face the Nation" in an interview taped Friday and aired on Sunday.
"This is a leader who is under enormous pressure. And I wonder sometimes how anybody can cope with the kind of relentless stress that you face after having been in some military activity or war footing for 30 years, which is what the reality is in Afghanistan."
Gates stressed that Karzai deserved respect as the leader of a sovereign country and said he had a cooperative relationship with U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.
"This is a man who's, first of all, a political leader," Gates told ABC's "This Week." "He has domestic audiences as well as foreign audiences. What I can tell you is that Gen. McChrystal continues to meet with him regularly. They have a very positive relationship. He gets very good cooperation out of President Karzai."
Gates said the Afghans want their president to be treated with respect as representative of a sovereign nation. Gates said it's only natural that when a political leader feels he or his nation is being pressured or disrespected, "he's going to react strongly," Gates said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"President Karzai is the commander in chief -- he is the president of a sovereign country," Petraeus told reporters. "Yes, there's a partnership, but he is the commander in chief."
Petraeus praised Karzai for making trips to Marjah in Helmand Province where thousands of U.S., NATO and Afghan troops pushed out the Taliban earlier this year, and to the Taliban's birthplace in neighboring Kandahar province. Kandahar is the site of a joint offensive ramping up to clear neighborhoods of insurgents and rush in new governance and aid to stall the Taliban's momentum.
NATO reported that another international service member was killed Sunday by a bomb in southern Afghanistan but gave no further details. But the Canadian command said a Canadian soldier was killed Sunday near Kandahar in the south.
On Sunday, Karzai traveled to northern Afghanistan where he urged insurgents to lay down their arms and air their grievances. Addressing a gathering in Kunduz province, he repeated his standing invitation to meet with any insurgent who renounces violence and terrorism and embraces the Afghan Constitution.
"Come and have your say, not by the gun," Karzai said.
"You say that 'foreigners are here.' As long as you fight, they won't leave," he said, referring to what the insurgents say is their main goal of driving foreign forces from the country.
Underscoring insecurity in the area, three rockets were fired toward Kunduz ahead of Karzai's arrival Sunday morning, but landed harmlessly in farm fields, provincial spokesman Ahmad Sami Yawar said. The president later pulled out of a visit to German troops stationed in the area due in part to what were described as safety concerns.
Security has been deteriorating in Kunduz for the past two years, particularly since the opening early last year of a route through the province for supplies traveling from Europe through Russia and down to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.