Karzai Dismisses Taliban Threat, Minimizes Differences With U.S.

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Afghan President Hamid Karzai asserted Tuesday that his government faced no serious threat from either revived Taliban forces or drug traffickers, and he toned down recent angry comments about the reported abuse of Afghan detainees at U.S. military facilities, instead describing such actions as "displeasing."

Karzai gave no sign of being disappointed with the Bush administration's rejection Monday of his demands for greater control over U.S. military forces and prisoners. Instead, in a discussion with Washington Post editors and reporters, he referred repeatedly to the importance of U.S. economic aid and protection to the ailing postwar nation.

"We are happy with what the United States is doing in Afghanistan," he said, appearing relaxed and confident. He noted that total U.S. aid to the country has amounted to nearly $5 billion and proffered a copy of the "strategic partnership" declaration he signed with President Bush on Monday. "How do you expect me to criticize?"

The Afghan leader, on his first visit to Washington since he was elected in October, played down concern over reports that guards at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, defiled copies of the Koran. He also repeated an earlier assertion that other factors were behind the destructive riots that erupted in Afghanistan last week, resulting in at least 15 deaths there, after the now-retracted Koran report appeared in Newsweek on May 9.

Karzai said the allegations of prison abuse, at Guantanamo and at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, were "displeasing to anybody, Muslims and non-Muslims." But he stressed that "we don't hold the American people responsible. It is individuals . . . it is not the fault of the nation." He noted that U.S. military authorities were investigating the alleged abuses and said, "While we are angry, we understand."

In a report last week, the New York Times provided extensive details from internal U.S. Army investigations into the abusive treatment that led to the deaths of two Afghan prisoners in U.S. military custody in 2002.

Karzai defended his government's efforts to curb the farming of opium poppies, after U.S. officials criticized him recently for failing to show strong leadership on the issue. He noted that poppy production had fallen by 30 percent after he asked farmers to stop its cultivation late last year. However, he added that if the farmers do not receive foreign financial help to switch to other crops, "I will lose credibility" and the growers will return to poppies.

Karzai's cautious references to several issues that have infuriated many Afghans -- and that have previously elicited sharper comments from him -- reflected what analysts have described as a fundamental dilemma of his presidency.

As the elected leader of a conservative Muslim country, he must respond to the sensitivities of his constituents over perceived attacks on their religion and rights. But as the head of a government that depends heavily on Western aid and protection, he must defer to U.S. wishes on most issues relating to the war on terrorism.

When seeking to explain Afghan resentment of U.S. military raids -- a factor in the recent violent protests -- Karzai stressed Tuesday that people had "opened their arms and welcomed" foreign troops who came to drive out the Taliban rulers in late 2001. But now, after several years of increasing stability, he said, they "no longer understand when soldiers go into their houses at night" and frighten their families.

Karzai minimized the current danger from Taliban fighters, regional warlords and drug trafficking, calling each "no worry" or "not a threat," despite a recent rash of violence that included attacks on anti-drug workers and the kidnapping of an Italian aid worker in Kabul.

On the other hand, the Afghan president made clear that he was deeply worried about losing the international support crucial to rebuilding the nation, and that he was eager to cement a long-term military partnership with Washington -- even if that required glossing over volatile, temporary disputes.

"I am warning the world," he said, against assuming everything is "rosy" in Afghanistan simply because parliamentary elections are on track and U.N. political oversight, which has guided the country since late 2001, will end later this year. "It is not rosy at all. It will take many, many years before we can stand on our own feet, in every walk of life."

The strategic partnership agreement Karzai and Bush signed on Monday calls for Washington to train and sustain Afghanistan's fledgling security forces, support counternarcotics programs and continue to rebuild the country's economy and political democracy.

The document says U.S. military forces will "continue to have the freedom of action" needed to carry out operations "based on consultations" with Afghan officials, and that the United States will "consult with respect to taking appropriate measures" if Afghanistan perceives that its "territorial integrity" or independence is threatened.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company