KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said if the United States and Pakistan ever went to war, his country would back Islamabad, drawing a sharp rebuke Sunday from Afghan lawmakers who claimed the country's top officials were adopting hypocritical positions.
The scenario is exceedingly unlikely and appears to be less a serious statement of policy than an Afghan overture to Pakistan, just days after Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Islamabad must do more to crack down on militants using its territory as a staging ground for attacks on Afghanistan.
"If fighting starts between Pakistan and the U.S., we are beside Pakistan," Karzai said is an interview with private Pakistani television station GEO that aired Saturday. "If Pakistan is attacked and the people of Pakistan need Afghanistan's help, Afghanistan will be there with you."
He said that Kabul would not allow any nation, including the U.S., to dictate its policies.
Both Washington and Kabul have repeatedly said Pakistan is providing sanctuary to militant groups launching attacks in Afghanistan.
The comments set off a firestorm of criticism in the country. Afghan lawmakers argued they were particularly hypocritical coming just weeks after the assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani by a suicide bomber.
While it is unclear who masterminded Rabbani's killing, the Afghan government has said it was planned in the Pakistani city of Quetta, the Taliban leadership's suspected base. In addition, the Afghan interior minister accused the Pakistani intelligence service of being involved -- a claim that has not been substantiated.
"Pakistan has never been honest with Afghanistan, and the nation of Afghanistan will never forget those things that happen here" because of Pakistan, Shah Gul Rezaye, a lawmaker from Ghazni province told The Associated Press, citing Rabbani's death and other incidents of violence.
"They make deal with terrorists, and then with the international community ... to get $1 billion from the U.S. under the name of the struggle against terrorism," she said.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it was up to the Afghan government to explain Karzai's remarks.
"This is not about war with each other," Embassy spokesman Gavin Sundwall told the AP. "This is about a joint approach to a threat to all three of our countries: insurgents and terrorists who attack Afghans, Pakistanis, and Americans."
Following her stop in Kabul, Clinton flew to Pakistan to deliver the blunt message that if Islamabad is unwilling or unable to take the fight to the al-Qaida and Taliban-linked Haqqani network operating from its border with Afghanistan, the U.S. "would show" them how to eliminate its safe havens.
Even so, she said the U.S. has no intention of deploying U.S. forces on Pakistani soil, and that the favored approach was one of reconciliation and peace -- an effort that needed Islamabad's cooperation.
Pakistan has been reluctant to move more forcefully against the Haqqani, arguing such an act could spark a broader tribal war in the region.
While it weighs its options, NATO pressed ahead with its operations.
The U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces on Saturday concluded two operations aimed at disrupting insurgent operations in Kabul, provinces south of the Afghan capital and along the eastern border with Pakistan -- all places where the Haqqani network has launched attacks.
NATO did not release further details about the operations, but Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a coalition spokesman, said Sunday that "a number of Haqqani affiliated insurgents plus additional fighters have been either detained or killed in the course of operations."
During her visit to Pakistan, Clinton said Haqqani fighters were among those killed and captured during the operations.
"Many dozens, if not into the hundreds, have been captured or killed on the Afghan side of the border," she said in Islamabad.
The push comes as NATO plans to pull out its combat forces by the end of 2014 and hand over full security responsibility to the Afghans.
But the attacks and assassination attempts continue.
In the latest such incident, bodyguards for Afghan Interior Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi shot and killed a would-be suicide bomber who was waiting for the minister's convoy Sunday in Sayyed Khel district of Parwan province, north of Kabul, the ministry said. The minister was not in the convoy at the time.
NATO also said three of its service members were killed separate clashes with insurgents in the south and east of the country. The coalition did not provide additional details, but the deaths, which occurred Saturday and Sunday, raised to 474 the number of NATO service members killed so far this year in Afghanistan.
Also, five villagers were killed while trying to remove a roadside mine planted by the Taliban in the western province of Herat, the provincial governor's spokesman, Mohyaddin Noori, said Sunday.