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Moves by John Kerry, Pentagon ease tensions with Hamid Karzai

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2013

Pentagon and State Department officials Monday appeared to work in tandem to tamp down reports of mounting tension between the Obama administration and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Hours after the U.S. military eased a long-standing strain on relations by handing over a final batch of detainees to Afghan forces, Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived for a surprise visit in Kabul, asserting that he and Mr. Karzai were "on the same page" heading into next year's U.S. troop drawdown.

The dual effort appeared to have its intended effect on the Afghan president, who responded by distancing himself from a claim he made earlier this month that U.S. officials were holding secret talks with the Taliban and colluding with the Islamist rebel group to destabilize his government.

The claim, which had drawn scorn from the White House, had also outraged lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Washington.

After meeting with Mr. Kerry on Monday, Mr. Karzai said international media outlets had badly misconstrued his March 10 remarks, in which he reportedly suggested U.S. officials were attempting to convince common Afghans that long-term stability would be impossible if U.S. troops fully leave the nation.

Mr. Kerry appeared satisfied with the explanation. "I am confident [Mr. Karzai] does not believe the U.S. has any interest except to see the Taliban come to the table to make peace and that we are completely cooperative with the government of Afghanistan with respect to the protection of their efforts and their people," the secretary of state said in Kabul.

"We're on the same page," he said. "I don't think there is any disagreement between us and I am very, very comfortable with the president's explanation."

The showing of unity came as the Karzai government confirmed an agreement with the U.S. over the transfer of detainees held at a detention facility near Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan's Parwan Province — the U.S. military's last such facility in the nation.

The Obama administration appeared to hold out hope Monday that the transfer, along with the positive public showing by Mr. Kerry, might signal a new wave of momentum behind U.S. attempts to create a smooth withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The White House has resisted saying outright whether all U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan, or whether a small contingent may stay behind in an advisory capacity.

There are also questions about what wartime legal protections might be afforded any troops who remain.

Away from Mr. Kerry's visit, meanwhile, the Marine Corps general who formerly headed NATO forces in Afghanistan sounded an optimistic tune on the preparedness of Afghan security forces Monday.

"The Afghan forces are going to be fully built at 353,000 at the end of this year," said Gen. John R. Allen, who spoke during a forum held by the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They'll have had two full fighting seasons under their belt before we shift to the long-term enduring presence, an advisory mission."

Gen. Allen added, however, that it would be inaccurate to assume that violence will not persist in some parts of Afghanistan after the U.S. pullout.

"Sometimes this comes as a surprise when I say this, that on the first of January [2015] ... there's still going to be fighting in Afghanistan," he said.

What remains to be seen is whether such potential future violence might be quelled by some sort of negotiated peace between the Karzai government and the Taliban.

While most analysts agree peace talks between the two may help stave off a security meltdown when U.S. forces pull out of Afghanistan, the talks have so far yielded no measurable progress.

But there were signs of a way forward Monday. Prior to Mr. Kerry's arrival in Kabul, news services quoted Mr. Karzai's foreign minister as saying the Afghan president intends to travel to Qatar during the coming days in a potential bid toward preliminary negotiations with the Taliban.

The announcement drew caution praise from the Obama administration officials traveling with Mr. Kerry.

"I wouldn't want to overplay it, but I think that it's a very positive sign," said one senior Obama administration official, who added that "this is a long process, and this is one more small but positive step in that ongoing process."

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