By Jules Witcover

Just as President Obama is weighing how many troops to call home from Afghanistan, in a withdrawal process he promised to begin in July, Afghan President Hamid Karzai seems to be threatening to show them the door.

In a news conference the other day in Kabul, Karzai angrily observed that foreign troops in his country were taking on "the behavior of an occupation" in their air attacks on Afghan homes. He coupled the observation with a warning that "the Afghan people know how to deal with that."

It was pretty tough talk from an ally awash in allegations of corruption who is on the receiving end of billions of dollars in what amounts to an exercise in U.S. nation-building. Offering no specifics, Karzai said his country would be obliged "to take unilateral action" if the attacks did not stop. "History is a witness how Afghanistan deals with occupiers," he added, an obvious reference to the earlier effective Afghan resistance to invading forces of the old Soviet Union.

The remarks were only Karzai's most recent complaints against the high civilian casualties in NATO raids going after suspected insurgents, stepped up as the Obama administration strives to create conditions conducive to more than a token U.S pullout in July. The Afghan president also warned NATO "that a repeat of air strikes on the houses of Afghanistan's people will not be allowed ... to happen anymore, and there is no excuse for such strikes."

No doubt much of Karzai's harsh critique was intended for domestic consumption. But it also may add to the impatience in the American Congress over the pace of the U.S.-led effort to bring stability to Afghanistan. Antiwar liberals repeatedly cite the acknowledgment by U.S. officials that the country is no longer the principal haven for al-Qaida and urge a substantial reduction starting this summer in the American military presence there.

Still, a general mood of acquiescence seems to prevail in Washington, as congressional leaders in both parties concentrate instead on the looming threat of national default if legislators fail to raise the limit on American debt by early August. House Speaker John Boehner's insistence that huge deficit reduction accompany a rise in the limit provides the mounting drama here, not the war in Afghanistan.

But an obvious way to attack the deficit lies in more quickly winding down the decade-long American involvement in Afghanistan, which turned from its earnest original determination to eradicate the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorism into propping up the Karzai regime against a largely indigenous insurgency.

The Afghanistan mission's single-minded original motivation had the strongest public support at home in the beginning. As the war dragged on, however, sapping more American lives and treasure, that backing eroded badly. Two-thirds of Americans polled today say the war in Afghanistan was a mistake.

The finding and killing of Osama bin Laden briefly reignited American patriotic feelings, but the euphoria seems already to be wearing off. His death has increased calls among antiwar liberals and others in Congress to accelerate the drawdown of U.S. forces.

Now comes Karzai threatening to throw out the Western forces that for a decade have ensured his regime's survival, ostensibly taking on the nation-building role that never was the original and prime purpose for the American and NATO presence there.

It would be easy, and doubtless satisfying to many American diplomats and officials who have had to deal with this unpleasant and allegedly corrupt man, to leave him to his difficulties. But Obama is not likely to let Karzai's grandstanding deter him from a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, which he committed to in lieu of his unachievable 2008 campaign pledge to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the new, limited U.S. engagement in the Western collective action to rid Libya of Moammar Gadhafi further contributes to the American deficit dilemma. It riles Democrats as well as Republicans who expected that Obama's election would get the United States to look more homeward, and not just in terms of eliminating its red ink.



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