KABUL, Afghanistan - The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan warned his troops to be ready for increased violence because of a series of anti-American statements by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, NATO said Thursday.
In an email to battlefield commanders, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said the remarks could spur more insider attacks, days after members of Afghan security forces killed two U.S. troops and a U.S. contractor in two separate shootings.
"We're at a rough point in the relationship," Dunford said in the email, according to a senior U.S. official, speaking anonymously to discuss the confidential communication.
After news of Dunford's email broke, Karzai's office released a new statement Thursday explaining the president's earlier remarks.
"My recent comments were meant to help reform, not destroy the relationship," the statement quotes Karzai telling an audience gathered for a televised talk show filmed at the presidential palace Thursday. "We want good relations and friendship with America, but the relationship must be between two independent nations."
Karzai did not back down or retract his earlier statements, instead saying the relationship "is complicated" by "terrorism, transition of the Bagram detention facility, continued civilian casualties (from NATO operations), and lack of respect for the national sovereignty of Afghanistan."
Karzai's statement may do little to soothe U.S. officials' unease. Over the weekend, the Afghan leader accused the U.S. of colluding with the Taliban on suicide attacks to keep the country unstable and give foreign forces an excuse to stay beyond their 2014 mandate. His remarks followed two suicide attacks that killed at least 19 Afghans on Saturday, coinciding with the first official visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Karzai also cautioned this week that the delay in handing over a U.S.-run detention center to Afghan control "could harm bilateral relations." He told the audience Thursday that "innocent people are still being held by foreigners" at the Bagram facility, forcing their children to "go begging" without their fathers at home. His remarks came after he and Dunford met Wednesday to discuss the issue but failed to resolve the impasse.
Dunford and other top U.S. officials have rejected Karzai's allegations of collusion with the Taliban.
Dunford's warning to his troops, first reported by The New York Times, showed the deep U.S. concern that Karzai's words could go beyond angry rhetoric and spark violence targeting U.S. forces, a threat that could harm the larger relationship.
NATO released a statement explaining the missive, saying it "routinely conducts assessments and adapts its protection posture to ensure our forces are prepared to meet potential threats." The statement calls Dunford's email "prudent given increased coalition causalities in recent days."
Dunford also said unusually warm weather could mean an early start to the Taliban fighting season because militants can return from now-open high mountain passes from Pakistan.
In the latest insider attack, an Afghan policeman jumped onto the back of a parked police truck on Monday, grabbed a mounted heavy machine gun and opened fire on Afghan and U.S. troops in eastern Wardak province. Four members of the Afghan security forces were killed along with two U.S. troops - one member of the U.S. special operations forces and one conventional U.S. soldier. Earlier, a senior U.S. defense official reported that both were members of the special operations forces.
On the detention center issue, NATO released a statement Wednesday saying both parties pledged to continue constructive dialogue to resolve the remaining issues. The facility has an Afghan administrator but is still U.S.-run.
The prison transfer, originally slated for 2009, has been repeatedly delayed because of disputes between the U.S. and Afghan governments about whether all detainees should have the right to a trial and who will have the ultimate authority over the release of prisoners the U.S. considers a threat.
The Afghan government has maintained that it needs full control over which prisoners are released as a matter of national sovereignty. The issue has threatened to undermine ongoing negotiations for a security agreement that would govern the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the current combat mission ends in 2014.