President- No Afghan control of U.S. troops

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai left the White House on Monday with no promise of more control over thousands of American troops in his country and with strains in his relationship with the United States on full display.

Despite a chummy side-by-side news conference with President Bush that was designed to showcase U.S. support for Afghanistan's first democratically elected leader, Karzai also got no promise of the quick repatriation of Afghan prisoners now in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere.

Both issues have caused Karzai headaches at home, where anti-American sentiment recently exploded over a news report, since retracted, that U.S. interrogators flushed a Quran down a toilet. Sixteen Afghans died in anti-American demonstrations this month.

"Of course our troops will respond to U.S. commanders," Bush said, even while praising the progress of Afghan forces and taking pains to say that the U.S. military consults with Karzai's government.

There are about 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, costing about $1 billion a month. There are also about 8,200 troops from NATO countries in Kabul and elsewhere.

Three years after the fall of the rigid Islamic rule of the Taliban, Afghanistan is a grateful U.S. ally but one obviously eager to assert greater independence. Juggling heavy troop commitments in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, the Bush administration would gladly hand the Afghans more authority if the country's military and economy could manage independently.

That time is years away, as Bush's pledge of continuing support and a joint statement laying out U.S. help for Afghan security, anti-terror and economic programs attest.

"Our mission in Afghanistan and Iraq is the same," Bush said at Monday's news conference. "I mean, we want these new democracies to be able to defend themselves. And so we will continue to work with the Afghans to train them and to cooperate and consult with the government."

Karzai smiled and nodded as Bush spoke. He invited Bush to visit Afghanistan, as Vice President Dick Cheney and first lady Laura Bush have done.

"Afghanistan will continue to need a lot of support," Karzai said.

The joint statement issued Monday seals the two nations' long-term partnership, enabling "Afghanistan to stand on its own feet eventually and be a good, active member of the region, contributing to peace and stability," Karzai said.

The statement also guarantees U.S. forces the continued use of Bagram Air Base, where reports of U.S. abuse of Afghan prisoners have infuriated both Karzai and his political opponents at home.

Karzai toned down recent criticism of the United States for ceding too little authority over U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He did not repeat a tart assessment of U.S. largesse he made Sunday, when he accused the United States of turning a cold shoulder to suffering in his country before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Regrettably the world, the United States and other countries ... did not see it compatible with their national interests to address the plight of the Afghan people then," Karzai told Boston University graduates Sunday.

Afghanistan was occupied by the former Soviet Union and the Taliban before the U.S. invaded in late 2001 to rout suspected terrorism collaborators.

Bush, meanwhile, did not sugarcoat the U.S. position that Karzai's government must do more, and fast, to squelch Afghanistan's burgeoning opium poppy industry. Bush brought up the drug issue himself, without waiting for a reporter to ask him about it.

"There's too much poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. And I made it very clear to the President that ... we have got to work together to eradicate (the) poppy crop," Bush said.

Karzai has been cooperative, and a United Nations report showing a dip in poppy production is a good sign, Bush said.

"Exactly," Karzai chimed in, nodding.

Afghanistan is the world's main source of opium, the raw material for heroin. Drug production has soared since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, leading to warnings the former al-Qaida haven is fast turning into a "narco-state."

A diplomatic cable sent May 13 from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul addressed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said a U.S.-sponsored crackdown on the narcotics industry had not been very effective partly because Karzai "has been unwilling to assert strong leadership," according to a New York Times report Sunday.

Karzai defended his government's efforts and said with foreign assistance his country could be free of poppy crops in five to six years.

While Karzai was in Washington, Afghan anti-drug forces arrested suspected drug traffickers and seized more than 10,000 pounds of opium, in an apparent show of resolve. Officials said Monday that up to 15 suspects were arrested, including a former intelligence chief.

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