Wed, May 25, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Bush disappoints Karzai over troops and prisoners

DEPENDENCE The Afghan president hoped for more control over US troops in Afghanistan and more rapid prisoner repatriation, but apparently didn't get either


Afghan President Hamid Karzai left the White House with no promise of more control over thousands of US troops in his country and with strains in his relationship with the US on full display.

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

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

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

There are about 20,000 US troops in Afghanistan. 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 US 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 US help for Afghan security, anti-terror and economic programs attest.

"Our mission in Afghanistan and Iraq is the same," Bush said on Monday in the White House. "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 US 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 on 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 US forces the continued use of Bagram Air Base, where reports of US abuse of Afghan prisoners have infuriated both Karzai and his political opponents at home.

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

"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 on Sunday.

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

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

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