WASHINGTON – The White House on Friday delivered a stern public rebuke to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, describing his latest outburst as "genuinely troubling" and seeking "clarification" from Kabul.
Karzai accused foreign powers of orchestrating election fraud last year, just three days after US President Barack Obama made a secret weekend trip to Afghanistan to warn him to do more to tackle government corruption.
"Obviously some of the comments by President Karzai are troubling. They are cause for real and genuine concern," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, in a significant stiffening of the US tone on the controversy.
"We are seeking clarification from President Karzai about the nature of some of his remarks," Gibbs said, noting the huge US military and political resources that had been poured into Afghanistan.
"The president was quite clear with President Karzai over the weekend about the necessary steps that have to be taken to improve governance and corruption."
Gibbs was asked whether Karzai's visit to the White House planned for May 12, was still on. His response: "as of right now," appeared to put the event in play as a bargaining chip.
Karzai's claims called into question whether he had absorbed Obama's message on Sunday, and will also pose a political problem for Washington, which has embraced the Afghan leader as a partner despite its distaste for his conduct.
The comments by Gibbs also represented a calculated intervention into Afghan politics. On Thursday, his deputy Bill Burton had offered a more non-committal comment on Air Force One and the State Department brushed aside the allegations.
The Afghan leader drew fierce global condemnation for his speech on Thursday.
"There was fraud in presidential and provincial council elections -- no doubt that there was a very widespread fraud, very widespread," Karzai told Afghan election commission workers in Kabul.
"But Afghans did not do this fraud. The foreigners did this fraud," he said, accusing other countries of interfering in his country's domestic affairs.
He went so far as to claim that such moves risked the 126,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan being seen as "invaders" -- terminology used by the Taliban -- and their nine-year insurgency becoming viewed as "a national resistance."
Afghan analysts suggested that Karzai had lost control when he made his staggering remarks after being criticized by Obama and angered by the Afghan parliament, and could signal a shift in foreign policy.
This week Afghan lawmakers voted against his amendments to a law banning non-Afghans from the UN-backed watchdog that was integral to exposing last year's fraud.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled in Afghanistan in September and some Afghans believe Karzai is galled by the prospect of having to make embarrassing concessions to secure vital foreign funds.
Karzai was declared re-elected in November by his own officials after his challenger Abdullah Abdullah abandoned a run-off.
He accused "embassies" of trying to bribe electoral members, and former UN deputy head of mission Peter Galbraith, and the head of the EU election observer mission, France's Philippe Morillon, of orchestrating the fraud.
Galbraith was sacked after arguing the UN was turning a blind eye to the electoral chicanery. At the time, he said that as much as 30 percent of the Karzai vote in the August election was fraudulent.
Interviewed by AFP, Galbraith said Karzai's comments were "absurd and preposterous" and showed that Karzai was not taking Obama's warnings seriously.