(Corrects grammar in paragraph six)
KABUL, March 10 (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai on
Sunday ratcheted up his criticism of Washington during a visit
of the U.S. defense secretary, underscoring tension between
allies struggling to stabilise the country ahead of a NATO troop
Karzai accused the United States and the Taliban of
colluding to convince Afghans that foreign forces were needed to
maintain peace in the country beyond next year, when most
foreign combat forces are due to leave.
Then, his government alleged U.S.-led forces and Afghans
working with them were abusing and arresting university students
and urged them to stop.
Referring to two bomb attacks on Saturday that killed 17
people, Karzai said the blasts were aimed at convincing people
that the Taliban would return if U.S. forces withdrew.
"Those bombs ... were in the service of the Americans to
keep foreigners in Afghanistan longer, to keep them here,"
Karzai told a gathering to mark International Women's Day.
The Taliban have for years demanded the withdrawal of
foreign forces and have never suggested that they wanted them to
Karzai has a history of making inflammatory remarks,
particularly railing against the United States with which he has
an uneasy relationship.
The issue of U.S. troop levels after most U.S.-led NATO
combat troops withdraw by the end of 2014 will be one of the
main subjects on the agenda at talks between Karzai and U.S.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is in Afghanistan to visit
A joint news conference that had been scheduled for them was
cancelled because of security worries, a U.S. official said.
Karzai also said the Taliban and the United States had been
holding talks in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar on a "daily
basis", but the militant group and Washington denied they had
resumed efforts on dialogue that stalled a year ago.
The U.S. government has said it remained committed to
political reconciliation involving talks with the Taliban but
progress would require agreement between the Afghan government
and the insurgents.
"This is simply incorrect," said a U.S. official, who
declined to be identified, when asked about Karzai's remarks
about the talks.
The Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan, Zabihullah Mujahid,
also denied that negotiations with the United States had resumed
and said no progress had been made since they were suspended.
"The Taliban strongly rejects Karzai's comments," he said.
The Kabul government has been pushing hard to get the
Taliban to the negotiating table before foreign troops withdraw.
Afghan officials have not held direct talks with the
militants, who were toppled in 2001 and have proven resilient
after more than a decade of war with Western forces.
U.S. diplomats have been seeking to broaden exploratory
talks with the Taliban that began clandestinely in Germany in
late 2010 after the Taliban offered to open a representative
office in Qatar.
Regional power Pakistan indicated a few months ago that it
would support the peace process by releasing Afghan Taliban
detainees who may help promote the peace process. But there have
been no tangible signs the move advanced reconciliation.
Hagel arrived on Friday for his first trip abroad as defense
His visit coincides with the passing of a deadline imposed
by Karzai for U.S. special forces to leave the province of
Wardak, after Karzai accused them of overseeing torture and
killings in the area.
U.S. forces have denied involvement in any abuses and it was
not clear if they were leaving Wardak by the deadline.
The Afghan government said in a statement the abuse and
detention of university students was a violation of sovereignty
and it called on U.S.-led forces to stop it.
The government said in a decree security forces and
university authorities had to stop foreign forces going in to
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Michael
Georgy; Editing by Robert Birsel)