KABUL, Afghanistan -- President Hamid Karzai leveled particularly harsh accusations against the United States on Sunday, suggesting that the Americans and the Taliban had a common goal in destabilizing his country. The comments cast a shadow on the first visit by Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.
The Afghan president's discontent with his U.S. allies has been a recurring theme over the past 10 years. Still, his condemnation now, at a critical moment for talks under way on the shape and scope of any U.S. military presence in Afghanistan past 2014, has raised new questions about the two countries' abilities to bridge their intensifying differences.
In recent days, Mr. Karzai has been the most critical about some of the policies that U.S. officials have described as most important to their mission in this Central Asian nation, including the widespread use of Special Operations forces and a continuing say in how battlefield detainees are vetted and released.
He has seized on both as violations of Afghan sovereignty, banning U.S. commandos from Wardak province and bristling at key terms in a negotiated agreement on Bagram Prison.
A result was a last-minute refusal by U.S. officials on Saturday to hand the Afghan government full control of the prison.
After the cancellation of a joint news conference Sunday -- U.S. officials said security concerns were the cause, even as Afghan officials dismissed that claim -- Mr. Hagel and Mr. Karzai met for private discussions and dinner. Later, Mr. Hagel said the two had had "a very direct conversation."
"I know these are difficult issues for President Karzai and the Afghan people," said Mr. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska. "And I was once a politician, so I can understand the kind of pressures especially leaders of countries are always under."
The defense secretary expressed hope that the U.S. and Afghanistan "could move forward, and I have confidence we will, and deal with these issues."
Among Mr. Karzai's critical comments Sunday, which came at an early-morning news conference in honor of Women's Day in Afghanistan, he charged that the U.S. government and the Taliban, while using different means, had, in effect, colluded to keep Afghanistan unstable to justify a continued U.S. military presence.
Amid the negotiations over a post-2014 U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Mr. Karzai has been notably critical about what he sees as doom-saying reports by Western officials and advocacy groups about Afghanistan's future. He described such reports as propaganda, promulgated through the Western news media and picked up by local Afghan media, with the goal of undermining Afghan confidence and, by extension, faith in his government.
"There is a lot of negative propaganda about what will happen after 2014," Mr. Karzai said, adding that it has come to be thought of as "the 2014 movie," he said, suggesting it was being forecast as a horror show.
Further, he accused the U.S. of sending contradictory messages about its views of the Taliban: on the one hand claiming to see them as the enemy but at the same time reaching out to them to engage in negotiations, a process that Mr. Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said was still going on.
The Americans insist, however, that they are no longer in negotiations with the Taliban and have ceded their role to Mr. Karzai's government if talks are ever started. Regardless, many Afghans express confusion about the Americans' true intentions.
"On the one hand the Taliban are talking with the Americans, but on the other hand they carry out a bombing in Kabul," Mr. Karzai said, referring to a bomb that exploded Saturday in front of the Defense Ministry.
"Yesterday's bombings in Kabul and Khost didn't aim to show Taliban's strength -- indeed, they served America. By those bombings they served the 2014 negative slogan," he said. "These bombings aimed to prolong the presence of the American forces in Afghanistan."
In a separate complaint, Mr. Karzai said that on Saturday an Afghan engineering student in the southern city of Kandahar had been badly abused at a U.S.-run prison after being detained by Afghan forces backed by the CIA. Later, his spokesman said Mr. Karzai had asked that the CIA hand over the Afghan forces that carried out the arrest and interrogation.
In comments before the meeting between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Hagel, the new international military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford, insisted that the two countries were still getting along, saying, "We do not have a broken relationship."
His view was echoed by Mr. Faizi, who said both Mr. Hagel and Gen. Dunford had been responsive.