With a self-imposed deadline of December 2014 for American combat forces to leave Afghanistan, the Obama administration is trying to shape a less volatile relationship with Karzai while insisting on a clean election next year to replace him. Kerry put his long friendship with the Afghan president on full display Monday, praising him for his courage and endurance, while Karzai repeatedly thanked Kerry and other American officials for sticking by him.
“You, I think, stand on the brink of a remarkable legacy for having brought Afghanistan through an amazingly difficult time,” Kerry told Karzai while in Kabul on his second foreign trip as secretary of state. “There are still difficulties ahead; there are still challenges.”
The two nations are trying to sort out difficult issues that often pit U.S. goals for the security of American forces and interests against Karzai’s keen and increasingly outspoken defense of Afghanistan’s national sovereignty.
The largest of these issues remains unresolved: whether any U.S. troops who stay in the country for training and counterterrorism operations after 2014 would be immune from prosecution under Afghan law. U.S. officials say that protection is essential for a long-term joint security agreement, but it will be a hard sell to Afghans. The same dispute sank a hoped-for security agreement that would have left a training and stability force in Iraq.
U.S. officials say it would be foolish to think that the process of separating U.S. and Afghan control will be smooth. Some of Karzai’s recent statements are Exhibit A.
New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel canceled a news conference with Karzai this month after Karzai was widely quoted accusing the Obama administration of colluding with the Taliban insurgency that has tried to overthrow him for a decade. The remark angered U.S. officials and many in Congress.
Kerry and others have assured the Afghan president that direct talks between the United States and the Taliban remain on hold, and Karzai said Monday that his complaint had been misunderstood.
He attempted to put into context some of his recent inflammatory remarks, particularly his accusation that U.S. troops had tortured civilians outside Kabul.
“When I say something to this effect, it’s not to offend our allies but to correct the offense,” Karzai said. “I am the president of this country. It’s my job to provide all the protection I can” for Afghans.