Kerry on ‘Same Page’ as Karzai Easing U.S.-Afghan Tension

Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. was “on the same page” with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, downplaying irritants in bilateral relations and expressing confidence they would secure an agreement for some U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan after 2014.

“I don’t think there’s any disagreement between us,” Kerry said. The U.S. “has no interests except to see the Taliban come to the table to make peace.”

Kerry spoke hours before Australia announced that most of its troops will exit the South Asian nation by year-end, leaving the job of fighting the Taliban increasingly in the hands of the Afghan security forces. Comments by Kerry and Karzai at a news briefing in Kabul contrasted with tensions that marred Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit two weeks ago.

Speaking to reporters at the presidential palace last night during a break in their discussions, Karzai and Kerry cited their friendship and said they shared goals for peace talks with the Taliban, free and fair elections next year and a full transition to Afghan-led security and economic development.

Kerry’s visit, his first as the top U.S. diplomat, wasn’t announced in advance for security reasons. The trip followed disputes over matters including the transfer of detainees to Afghan custody and the expulsion of U.S. Special Forces from a restive area. Following Taliban suicide attacks during Hagel’s trip, Karzai was quoted saying the extremists’ actions were in the “service of America.”

Rocky Relations

Karzai acknowledged “ups and downs” in the U.S.-Afghan relationship. U.S. officials, asking not to be identified, said the transition to full Afghan-led security won’t always be smooth because of sensitivity over issues of sovereignty.

Karzai said his comments during Hagel’s visit were misinterpreted to suggest that he had accused the U.S. of colluding with the Taliban, and that he intended to send a message that extremist violence only serves to prolong the U.S. military presence and block the path to peace. The remarks outraged lawmakers in Washington who said they called into question future American aid.

Kerry cited President Barack Obama’s commitment that the U.S. will stay engaged with Afghanistan after American troops move out of a combat role in 2014. Afghans “remain grateful” for U.S. efforts and sacrifices to rebuild Afghanistan and its security forces, Karzai said.

Prison Handover

Both men praised yesterday’s handover to Afghan control of the Parwan detention facility near the Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, which had been a source of dispute. Kerry said the final accord, reached after months of delays, addressed U.S. worries over the release of dangerous detainees. Karzai said the two sides agreed to share intelligence and exchange views on those who might return to the battlefield if released.

Parwan houses about 3,000 prisoners including foreign nationals, Afghan General Zahir Azimy said by telephone. While some non-Afghan detainees remain under U.S. control, he said his government’s priority was to regain sovereignty over its own citizens.

Referring to another source of friction, Karzai said his order for U.S. Special Forces to leave part of Wardak province, after an investigation into abuses alleged by villagers, was intended to “correct the situation” and not “to offend our allies.” The U.S. has denied involvement in any misconduct.

Karzai said he plans to visit Doha, Qatar, this week for talks about setting up an office there for Taliban representatives willing to engage in talks to end the almost 12-year conflict.

Taliban Interests

Asked why he thinks the Taliban may be ready to make peace, Karzai said, “it’s in their interest to renounce violence” and return to their homeland. Afghan officials say many insurgents operate from Pakistan.

Kerry also said Karzai “could not have made more clear his commitment” to holding free elections in April 2014. The Afghan leader, whose re-election in 2009 was marred by charges of fraud, pledged that under “no circumstance” would Afghanistan repeat its experience from the last vote.

Both men referred to their friendship, which U.S. aides said was forged in a dozen meetings over more than 10 years. Kerry was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before becoming secretary of state this year, and met Karzai five times during Obama’s first term.

U.S. and Afghan officials are seeking to redefine the terms of their relationship in advance of the planned withdrawal of all international troops in a primary combat role by the end of 2014, following a war that began in 2001. As of yesterday, 2,183 Americans have been killed during the conflict.

‘Absolutely Confident’

Obama has ordered the withdrawal of half of the roughly 68,000 U.S. troops by next February. American officials have said the president is considering keeping 8,000 to 12,000 forces from the U.S. and NATO to support and train Afghans or play a limited role fighting terrorists if an agreement can be reached to secure their immunity from local prosecution.

“I am absolutely confident based on the conversation that we had” that the nations will reach a deal on immunity, Kerry told reporters.

Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith said in a statement today that a majority of his country’s troops would be home by the end of the year. The decision to close an allied base at Tarin Kot in Uruzgan Province by the end of the year “is in line with the timetable to transition to full Afghan-led security,” Smith said.

‘Still Hoping’

Kerry today met with female Afghan entrepreneurs, including the founder of an educational software company and a woman who started a construction and trucking conglomerate. Hassina Syed, president and CEO of Syed Group of Companies, said she started her business with a $500 loan from her father when she was 19, shortly after the fall of the Taliban.

Syed told Kerry that “we are still hoping” the international community will continue to advocate for women throughout Afghan society after 2014.

Before leaving today, Kerry also met with politicians and activists to discuss next year’s election. He praised the group for their contributions to democracy and told them “the whole world is watching” their preparations.

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