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When Rep. Dana Rohrabacher was asked not to come into Afghanistan over the weekend, it touched off a diplomatic brouhaha that could be the latest in a string of blows to U.S.-Afghan relations.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asked the California Republican, a vocal opponent of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Barack Obama’s strategy in the country, not to accompany other Members on the trip. The Congressional delegation led by Rep. Louie Gohmert went on without him.
While in the country, the Texas Republican said he held an impromptu meeting with leaders of the Afghanistan National Front, the opposition party that has advocated for regime change. GOP Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Michael Burgess (Texas) also attended the meeting.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has already distanced itself from the meeting. Gohmert, who is back in the United States, said in an interview that the confab was justified and necessary.
“I understand the embassy distancing itself from our meeting,” he told Roll Call. “But I felt like we had a great meeting, and they understand that they do have some friends in the United States even if they aren’t at the White House.”
Gohmert, Bachmann and Burgess met at the home of Ahmad Zia Massoud in Kabul on Sunday. Massoud was present, along with Abdul Rashid Dostum and other top leaders in the National Front, a group that traces its lineage to the Northern Alliance, which worked with the United States to fight the Taliban and fought against Soviet Communists in the 1980s.
But the meeting may have been taken as an insult by Karzai, and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul released a statement distancing itself from the Members’ trip.
“We understand that Members of the U.S. Congress had a private meeting with former Northern Alliance political figures on April 22 in Kabul,” the statement said, according to NBC News. “U.S. Embassy Kabul neither arranged nor participated in these meetings. The Members of Congress do not represent the State Department or any other part of the executive branch. Their presence and views at this privately arranged event do not reflect the view of the president or the administration.”
Gohmert said he can understand why Karzai could perceive such a meeting to be a threat to his power, but with the drawdown of troops coming in 2014, he wanted to meet with the group that he thinks could help protect the country after American forces leave. He has advocated for arming the group.
“These are not fanatics, these are people who are our allies,” Gohmert said. “Actually, I’m insulted that Karzai would be bothered that Americans would feel some affinity for people that buried family members because they fought with Americans.”
Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) and Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) also traveled to Afghanistan on the Congressional delegation but did not attend the meeting with National Front leaders, Gohmert said.
The meeting came to light after news reports surfaced that Rohrabacher had been asked not to enter Afghanistan. Gohmert said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called him and said there could be a problem if the Congressman enters the country.
Rohrabacher then spoke with Clinton, who urged him to remain behind in Dubai.
“She went into this long explanation of how Karzai is going absolutely bananas about me coming to Afghanistan and he is just blowing a gasket,” Rohrabacher said in a phone interview today from Doha, Qatar. “She just said, ‘Look I’ve got so many things I want to do. ... This might make many things I’m trying to do fail.’”
Rohrabacher said he complied with Clinton’s request, but he added that he thinks the State Department should have stood up for him and used the squabble as an opportunity to confront Karzai.
“While I was happy to comply with our secretary of State, I think that sometimes you can be so risk averse to making someone mad that you don’t do the right thing,” he said. “Somebody needs to look Karzai in the face and say: ‘Face reality. Dana is just the messenger of your problems, he’s not the cause of your problems.’”
Rohrabacher is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, and he said the State Department shouldn’t allow countries to ban chairmen of relevant subcommittees.
“I think there is a bad precedent,” he said. “It just indicates there are a lot of people who really don’t think that the legislative branch deserves to be participating in setting policy, when in fact the legislative branch plays a major role in setting policy.”
A request for comment from the State Department was not returned this afternoon.
This is not the first time Rohrabacher has been unwelcome in the Middle East. Last year, an Iraqi spokesman said he is banned in the country after the Californian suggested that Iraq should pay back the United States for what it has spent on the war there since 2003.
Rohrabacher, like Gohmert, has advocated for a change in course in Afghanistan, including unseating Karzai. And through his subcommittee, he held a hearing asking the government to investigate Karzai’s personal finances.
Rohrabacher has a long history with National Front leaders. He and Gohmert met with them in Berlin last year, and Rohrabacher famously spent several days on the front lines with the Northern Alliance in the 1980s war against the Soviets.