KABUL – Secretary of State John Kerry joined Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday for a public show of unity, declaring that the two allies “are on the same page” despite weeks of unprecedented friction.
Kerry, who has played a special role in soothing U.S. tensions with the Afghan leader, said the United States respected Afghanistan’s sovereignty and remained committed to its security, even as it prepares final decisions about scaling back the U.S. commitment following the departure of all combat troops by the end of next year.
Karzai drove ties to a low point two weeks ago by declaring, during the first official visit of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, that the United States and the Taliban were colluding to preserve their roles in Afghanistan. The claim brought threats from some in Congress, including lawmakers who have strongly supported Afghanistan, to cut off U.S. aid.
But Kerry insisted the Obama administration bore no ill will.
“I don’t think there’s any disagreement between us,” Kerry told an evening news conference at Karzai’s palace, after hours of private talks on a range of topics related to the diminishing U.S. presence. “We’re on the same page.”
Karzai insisted that he had been misquoted and that he remained grateful for all the United States had done to build Afghanistan and its security forces.
He said it was “a very good day,” in part because of a ceremony formally turning over control of the Parwan prison at Bagram air base to Afghanistan, ending a dispute of more than a year over control of hundreds of Taliban prisoners. The Pentagon announced Saturday that it had reached a deal that would turn over control of the prison, while guaranteeing that a few dozen prisoners the U.S. considers security threats will remain behind bars.
Tensions may be easing as well because of a U.S. decision this month to start withdrawing special forces from Taliban-infested Wardak province, west of Kabul, as demanded by Karzai. Karzai has insisted that the U.S. forces were guilty of abuses of the civilian population, and he stood by that contention at the news conference.
He said some of the troops had abused Afghans “massively” and that the withdrawal of the forces would begin to correct the situation.
A sensitive issue between the countries is the April 2014 presidential election, which is supposed to bring an end to Karzai’s leadership and the entry of a successor. But some Afghans and Western officials fear that Karzai could try to maintain his influence through an allied candidate, and there are widespread fears that the election could be marred by ballot stuffing and other irregularities seen in the past.
Kerry exhorted Karzai to ensure that the election is “transparent and accountable,” and said he would discuss with the Afghans how it can be conducted fairly. He said Karzai “stood on the brink of a remarkable legacy” by taking Afghanistan through a decade of war, and that the peaceful hand-over of power to a successor government would be “historic.”
But Karzai, while insisting that the election would be conducted properly, appeared reluctant to have too much international involvement in how it is run.
He said that while he understood American concerns about the election, it should be “free from all interference,” either “internal” or foreign.
The leaders also discussed their plans to try to press ahead with peace talks with the Taliban. Karzai is traveling to Qatar this week to discuss with its emir the planned opening of an office in the Persian Gulf state that is intended to serve as the center of discussions between the militants and the Afghan and Pakistani governments.
Kerry sought to reassure Karzai that the U.S. government was not conducting secret talks with the Taliban. Karzai has feared that the United States could be trying to work out a deal against his wishes.
Kerry became the administration’s envoy of choice to Karzai in 2009, when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was dispatched to convince Karzai that he needed to take part in a runoff election, a case he made in a marathon series of meetings with the president.