Bush Rebuffs Karzai's Request on Troops

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

President Bush rebuffed Afghan President Hamid Karzai's effort to gain greater control over U.S. military operations in his country yesterday, as the two leaders endorsed an agreement allowing the United States to continue its policy of simply informing Afghan officials before launching raids in Afghanistan.

"In terms of more say over our military, our relationship is one of cooperate and consult," Bush said.

Bush also turned down Karzai's request for Afghanistan to take custody of its citizens being detained by the United States as suspected terrorists, saying that Afghanistan lacks facilities where the suspects "can be housed and fed and guarded." The United States is detaining hundreds of former Taliban fighters, many of whom were captured in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion more than three years ago.

News reports of abuse of some of the detainees by U.S. guards in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the Bagram military base in Afghanistan have ignited outrage in Afghanistan and other parts of the Islamic world. This led to Karzai's efforts to gain control of Afghans in U.S. custody.

"Our policy, as you know, has been to work our way through those who are being held in Guantanamo and send them back to the host countries," Bush said at a White House news conference. "And we will do so over time with the Afghan government."

The two leaders played down their disagreements when they emerged from a meeting to face reporters in the East Room of the White House. Instead, they talked about their newly signed strategic partnership, outlining the terms of continued U.S. economic and military help for Afghanistan as the nation struggles to establish a democratic government.

Karzai said "Afghanistan will not suddenly stand on its own feet" even with ratification of a constitution, his own election as president and parliamentary elections scheduled for September. "Politically, we would have done the process . . . but in terms of the institutional strength, Afghanistan will continue to need a lot of support," he said.

In a joint declaration between the two nations, the United States promised to provide much of that help. The United States will continue to train Afghan military and other security personnel, and it will maintain a military presence to battle the remnants of the Taliban regime and al Qaeda fighters once headquartered there. U.S. personnel will also help fight the nation's deeply entrenched illegal drug business.

"I've got great faith in the future in Afghanistan," Bush said, as Karzai stood beside him. "First, I've got great faith in the ability of democracy to provide hope. And I've got faith in this man as a leader. He has shown tremendous courage in the face of difficult odds."

The meeting between Bush and Karzai came amid heightened tension over U.S. treatment of Afghan prisoners and Kabul's problems in getting a handle on the nation's opium trade. The friction was exacerbated by a pair of reports in the New York Times in recent days. One article recounted allegations of brutality and abuse at the U.S. military base at Bagram, north of Kabul, and the other disclosed a recent U.S. embassy cable complaining that Karzai "has been unwilling to assert strong leadership" in fighting the production of poppy, the crop from which opium and heroin are produced.

Afghanistan remains one of the world's largest opium exporters, and for years the nation has relied on drugs for the bulk of its economy. "There's too much poppy cultivation in Afghanistan," Bush said.

Fearful of the backlash from farmers, Karzai resisted U.S. entreaties for an aerial spraying program to destroy poppy fields. A United Nations report last year found that poppy production in the country had skyrocketed, although Karzai more recently claimed substantial progress in reducing production through incentives to switch to other cash crops, including pomegranates and honeydew melons.

"We are hoping that Afghanistan this year will have something between 20 to 30 percent reduction in poppies all over the country, and that is a lot," Karzai said.

Three and a half years after U.S. and Afghan forces drove the radical Taliban government from power, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has begun to wear on some elements of that society. The country remains a dangerous place, particularly in remote areas where the government has less authority than tribal elders and regional warlords.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said that the country's security situation has deteriorated significantly in recent weeks, with violent protests, a surge of political killings and attacks on humanitarian workers. Meanwhile, anti-American sentiment contributed to deadly riots that were set off after Newsweek reported -- and then retracted -- the desecration of the Koran at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

As he set out for the United States last week, Karzai declared that the report on prisoner abuse "shocked me totally" and he vowed to press Bush to take "very, very strong action" against those responsible. In Bush's presence, however, Karzai moderated his language. First installed as president by a U.N. process orchestrated by the United States, Karzai has since won an election but still depends on U.S. support to hold on to power. The target of assassination attempts, he even relies on American bodyguards.

The "Newsweek story is not America's story," said Karzai, who indicated that provocateurs opposed to his nation's partnership with the United States used the report to enflame the violent protests. The abuse allegations, he added, do "not reflect at all on American people."

Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.

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