The Afghan government has launched an investigation into a series of television advertisements that urge President Hamid Karzai to sign an agreement keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, and has banned the widely-aired ads from appearing on the country's major channels.
It is the latest flare-up in the increasingly tense relations between Karzai and Washington over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA).
Broadcasters, which ran the ads for several weeks, came under investigation because the Afghan attorney general's office said it was unclear how the ads were funded. All stations have pulled the ads off the air.
"We have launched an investigation into broadcasters to find out where they receive money from for such advertisements," Basir Azizi, a spokesman for the attorney general, told Reuters on Wednesday.
Although the powerful Loya Jirga, an assembly of Afghan elders, endorsed the agreement, Karzai has refused to sign it unless several conditions are met. These include the immediate release of all Afghans detained by the U.S. in Guantanamo and an end to raids on Afghan homes by NATO.
The commercials included interviews with rank-and-file Afghans calling on Karzai to sign the agreement immediately. In one, the head of a cultural association tells the president: "You should accept the people's demand and sign this as soon as possible."
In the letter that ordered the investigation, Karzai's office dismissed the ads as propaganda.
“These messages rely on quotes and views from a number of unidentified individuals mentioning that BSA be signed by President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” the order said. “These views can never represent the legitimate demands of the people of Afghanistan and can be described as propaganda aiming to reach unilateral goals.”
An ad agency that placed some of the ads on Afghanistan's largest television station said its funding comes in part from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is tasked with reducing the capability of Taliban insurgents and training Afghan security forces to take over.
The ISAF was not available to confirm their role in commissioning or funding the ads.
"Public information released ... is intended to inform and educate the public on the mission and operations of ISAF and our Afghan National Security Forces partners," ISAF said in a statement to Reuters.
On Wednesday, a U.S. official told the AFP news agency that U.S. military leaders have proposed maintaining a 10,000 troop force in Afghanistan at least through 2016 — if Karzai were to consent.
"If that can't be, we also believe it would be most prudent to have nothing," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Many Afghans doubt their army can fend off Taliban insurgents without help from the ISAF and fear that recent progress in a number of areas — including women’s rights, democracy, and local security — will unravel without them there.
Although they were aware that the ads were funded by ISAF or related groups, broadcasters saw "public service" advertising as a source of revenue. Media outlets like Radio Killid and Afghanistan’s most popular television channel, Tolo TV, were being paid up to $1,000 per minute to air the ads, according to managers at those stations.
"All adverts are treated with similar terms and conditions, whether it is on BSA or a brand of mineral water," Massood Sanjar, Tolo TV's channel manager, told Reuters.
Afghanistan's media watchdog criticized the attorney general's probe and said pressure on broadcasters was hurting attempts to establish the industry's independence in Afghanistan with the country’s first democratic transition of power just around the corner.
"Such actions by the government are a clear attempt to limit freedom of speech and put at risk advances in the media industry," Mujib Khelwatgar, Director General of NAI media watchdog, told Reuters.
Government figures show that more than 50 private television stations, 150 radio broadcasters and about 1,000 newspapers have sprung up since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
Al Jazeera and Reuters