Relations between Karzai and the White House have been fraught for years, alternating between periods of close cooperation and periods of U.S. frustration and Afghan anger.
Karzai’s rhetoric was noticeably muted at Monday’s news conference with Kerry, where he focused largely on his appreciation of the U.S. contribution in Afghanistan. With the handover of the Parwan detention center and the U.S. announcement last week that troops would be gradually removed from Wardak province, it appears that Karzai’s most vehement demands have had an impact.
Kerry and Karzai praised a prison agreement that both said ensures that Afghan sovereignty over its own affairs is respected. Officials withheld many details about the deal, including whether the United States will keep its veto power over the release of 30 to 40 detainees referred to as “enduring security threats,” who American officials say pose a serious danger to U.S. and Afghan troops.
“It is important for the people of Afghanistan,” Karzai said of the prison, known as Bagram to Afghans, which has been a symbol of sometimes heavy-handed U.S. military control. “It is very closely linked to our sovereignty, and our sovereignty has to be respected.”
Kerry said Karzai “agrees that there are certain people there who shouldn’t be out creating problems,” and Karzai described a process for reviewing cases about which the United States and Afghanistan disagree. He was vague about what would happen if that review did not resolve the differences.
It is also unclear whether the U.S. mechanism of “administrative detention,” under which some detainees remain in custody without trial, will be continued under Afghan control. Kerry said the announcement of the transfer means the United States no longer holds prisoners in Afghanistan.
At the end of last year, about 3,800 detainees were at Parwan, about 700 of whom were under American control. The rate of release was significantly higher in cases adjudicated by Afghans.
Kerry’s trip also took him to Iraq. In both war-scarred countries, the secretary pushed a message of U.S. support while making clear that Washington won’t call all the shots.
As a senator, Kerry traveled to Afghanistan during similarly tense moments. In 2009, he went to Kabul to urge Karzai to hold a runoff election after a victory that many saw as tainted by fraud. In 2010, Kerry accused Karzai of ignoring corruption in his government, warning the Afghan president that his poor leadership could embitter both American lawmakers and the families of U.S. troops.
Kerry and Karzai said they had helpful discussions about the prospect of reconciliation with the Taliban, but they gave few specifics. The issue is complicated by Karzai’s demand that the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar sign a memorandum of understanding that would allow for the opening of a Taliban office in Doha.
Officials in Qatar have refused to sign such an agreement, which would outline the purpose of the Taliban office and codify the Afghan government’s role in peace talks. Meanwhile, Taliban representatives are often in the city, holding unofficial meetings that U.S. officials said are sometimes constructive for wider peace talks.
In an apparent breakthrough, though, Karzai announced last week that he will soon travel to Qatar to discuss future Taliban negotiations. The president said Monday that his government has had recent “individual contacts” with the Taliban, which he called a step toward reconciliation.
Obama supports the opening of the political office, which would give an address for talks with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul without conferring wider legal rights on the Taliban.