Afghan Minister: WikiLeaks Hurt U.S.-Afghan Ties

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KABUL, Afghanistan - A leaked diplomatic cable has undermined the U.S. ambassador's relationships with key Afghan ministers at a time when ties between the two nations are already strained, a top adviser to President Hamid Karzai said Saturday.

Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal, who is well-respected by the international community, vehemently denied that he called Karzai "an extremely weak man" as reported in a Feb. 26, 2010, cable written by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.

The report is "absolutely, categorically wrong and false," Zakhilwal said at an afternoon news conference. "It certainly will not be business as usual between some ministers and the ambassador."

In a raised voice, Zakhilwal accused Eikenberry of misquoting him in the cable to further Eikenberry's own opinion that Karzai was not a reliable partner. In a different cable leaked in November 2009, Eikenberry warned against sending substantial numbers of additional troops because Karzai was "not an adequate strategic partner."

"The ambassador has used my name to support his views of the president," Zakhilwal said about Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who once commanded troops in Afghanistan.

Zakhilwal said the cable has not only hurt Eikenberry's relationship with him, but his ties with key ministers in the government.

"I find this extremely unprofessional. ... I find this extremely undiplomatic, and to be honest with you, I am extremely saddened," Zakhilwal said. "And this leaves no trust between me and the ambassador - extremely little trust."

In a statement, Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy, said: "We know there are many questions raised by these leaks and we will work through those in private with our Afghan partners. We are determined not to allow the reckless actions of WikiLeaks to harm the strong and strategic relationships we have built over many years with many members of the government of Afghanistan."

Zakhilwal said he met with Karzai on Friday and offered to resign. He said Karzai asked him to stay on and told him that he didn't believe that he could have made such comments.

At a news conference in Kabul with the visiting Pakistani prime minister, Karzai defended Zakhilwal.

"I can assure you that Zakhilwal, our finance minister, has not said such things to Americans," Karzai said.

He alleged that U.S. officials were getting back at the finance minister over comments he made about Kabul Bank, a troubled institution that is now under the control of the Afghan Central Bank.

The rift came just hours after President Barack Obama made a brief, roughly three-hour visit to U.S. troops at Bagram Air Field outside Kabul. Foul weather kept him from flying by helicopter to the capital to see Karzai. Zakhilwal confirmed that weather prevented Obama's flight, but said Karzai did not feel slighted because he had just spent time with Obama two weeks ago at a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal.

In his speech to the troops, Obama said the U.S. will "continue to forge a partnership with the Afghan people for the long term."

The cable was part of a vast tranche of files released by the WikiLeaks website, which portray Afghanistan as rife with graft to the highest levels of government. The leaks could further erode support for the nine-year war and bolster the concerns of U.S. lawmakers who have threatened to hold back aid until they are convinced the money will not end up lining the pockets of the political elite.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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