KABUL – Eager to overcome a bout of bickering, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a show of unusual unity between their two nations on Monday. The friendly display came as the U.S. military ceded control of its last detention facility in Afghanistan, ending a longstanding irritant in relations.
Kerry arrived in the Afghan capital of Kabul on an unannounced visit amid concerns that Karzai may be jeopardizing progress in the war against extremism with anti-American rhetoric. After a private meeting, Kerry said he and Karzai were “on the same page” on security and reconciliation issues and brushed aside suggestions that relations were in peril.
Karzai infuriated U.S. officials earlier this month by accusing Washington of colluding with Taliban insurgents to keep Afghanistan weak even as the Obama administration pressed ahead with plans to hand off security responsibility to Afghan forces and end NATO’s combat mission by the end of next year.
At a joint news conference after their talks, Karzai told reporters that his comments in a nationally televised speech had been misinterpreted by the media. Kerry demurred on that point but said people sometimes say things in public that reflect ideas they have heard from others but don’t necessarily agree with.
For his part, Karzai said that he had been trying to make the point in his speech that if the Taliban really wanted foreign troops out of Afghanistan they should stop killing people.
Standing beside Kerry on Monday, Karzai said “today was a very good day,” citing the turnover of the detention facility at the U.S.-run Bagram military base north of Kabul. He also expressed gratitude for the sacrifices made for his country by Americans.
At the same time, he defended allegations he has made about American troops or their local contractors abusing Afghan civilians. He said his complaints and criticism were not meant to “offend” anyone but rather to protect his people.
“When I say something publicly, it is not meant to offend our allies but to correct the situation,” he said. “I am responsible for the protection of the Afghan people. I am the president of this country. It is my job to provide all the protection I can to the people of this country.”
Karzai has ordered U.S. special operations forces out of Wardak province, just outside Kabul, because of allegations that Afghans working with the commandos were involved in abusive behavior.
As Kerry flew to Kabul, the U.S. military ceded control of the Parwan detention facility near Bagram, a year after the two sides initially agreed on the transfer. Karzai had demanded control of Parwan as a matter of national sovereignty.
The long-running dispute over the center had thrown a pall over ongoing negotiations for a bilateral security agreement to govern the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014.
An initial agreement to hand over Parwan was signed a year ago, but efforts to follow through on it constantly stumbled over American concerns that the Afghan government would release prisoners that it considered dangerous. An initial deadline for the full handover passed last September; another passed earlier this month.
The U.S. concerns are not without foundation. Zakir Qayyum, a former Guantanamo detainee, was released into Afghan custody in 2007. Freed four months later, he rejoined the Taliban and reportedly has risen to become the No. 2 leader in the Taliban.
Both Kerry and Karzai lauded the transfer of the facility. Karzai said an Afghan review board would carefully consider any intelligence about detainees too dangerous to free.