Pleasantries but No Change as Bush Greets Karzai

While lavishing praise on his guest Monday, President George W. Bush indicated that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai will receive neither greater control over U.S. troops in his country nor substantially more aid to persuade poppy farmers to drop out of the narcotics business.

"I’ve got great faith in this man as a leader," Bush told reporters at a brief White House press conference after their morning meeting here.

Turning to Karzai’s appeals for a greater say the operations and conduct of the 20,000-odd U.S. troops in Afghanistan, however, Bush added: "Of course our troops will respond to U.S. commanders, but our U.S. commanders and our diplomatic mission there is in a consultative relationship with the government."

Both leaders, in a three-page joint declaration, stated that U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan "will continue to have access to Bagram Air Base and its facilities, and facilities at other locations as may be mutually determined."

"U.S. and Coalition forces are to continue to have freedom of action required to conduct appropriate military operations based on consultations and pre-agreed procedures," the document added.

"It doesn’t look like [Karzai] will take much home with him," said Afghanistan specialist Barnett Rubin of New York University (NYU) after the summit. Rubin suggested that the trip could weaken Karzai’s political position, particularly in the Pashtun strongholds of Kandahar and Jalalabad.

Karzai’s visit was the first of several by key Muslim political leaders due here this week, including Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

It came amid rising tensions in Afghanistan three months before twice-delayed parliamentary elections.

Karzai, who hopes that the elections will reinforce his authority over the country, has been badly embarrassed by a New York Times investigative report published over the weekend that detailed the torture-killing by U.S. military personnel of two Afghan detainees at Bagram Air base in December, 2002, as well as other recent reports about the abuse of Afghans both in their country and at the detention facility at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Earlier this month, a Newsweek story about an alleged incident in which a Koran was flushed down the toilet by U.S. guards at Guantanamo reportedly triggered demonstrations and rioting in Afghanistan in which at least 17 people were reported killed.

Adding to Karzai’s embarrassment was the leak of a State Department cable just two days before his arrival here that partly blamed the Afghan president’s "unwillingness to assert strong leadership" for the failure of a U.S.-financed drug eradication program to make adequate progress.

While heroin production was down slightly over the past year, the State Department warned in a March report that Afghanistan was "on the verge of becoming a narcotics state."

Placed on the defensive both at home and in Washington, Karzai’s stance here has been mixed.

Before Monday’s meeting, he strongly condemned the two 2002 killings and demanded "very, very strong action" in punishing the perpetrators. He also called for greater Afghan control over U.S. operations and the transfer of all Afghans held by the U.S., including those at Guantanamo, to the Afghan authorities.

While U.S. control made sense during and immediately after the ouster of the Taliban government in late 2001, he told a television interviewer Sunday, "now we are in a different phase of this struggle. The Afghan people now feel that they own the country, Afghanistan."

In particular, he said, U.S. forces should not be able to enter people’s homes "without the permission of the Afghan government" – a particularly sensitive issue in light of the protests that have been provoked by U.S. raids of suspected Taliban supporters in predominantly Pashtun areas.

At the same time, he emphasized that his government remained committed to eliminating the poppy crop over five to six years and that it was making strong progress toward that end.

"So we have done our job; the Afghan people have done their job," he told CNN’s Late Edition. "Now the international community must come and provide alternative livelihood to the Afghan people, which they have not done so far."

On both issues, however, Bush was not particularly encouraging.

While agreeing that Washington must "consult" with the Afghans on its military operations, Bush gave up nothing on the question of control. "They’ve invited us in," he said, "and we’ll consult with them in terms of how to achieve mutual goals, and that is to rout out the remnants of al-Qaeda, to deal with those folks who would come and like to create harm to U.S. citizens and/or Afghan citizens."

He also said Washington hoped to return all prisoners held in Guantanamo to their "host countries" but that "part of the issue is to make sure there is a place where the prisoners can be held."

On the drug issue, he praised Karzai’s efforts but failed to offer additional assistance. While agreeing that crop diversification should be an important part of U.S. drug strategy, citing the promise of specialty crops, like pomegranates and honeydew melons, he did not suggest that it would be given a higher priority than eradication, a tactic many Afghan officials believe will foment far more hostility toward his government, particularly in Pashtun areas.

For his part, Karzai played the perfect guest both by effusively praising the president and the United States for their role in Afghanistan and avoiding comment on his own appeals for greater control over U.S. Military operations or even on the U.S. Military abuses, other than to insist that reports of such abuse did "not reflect at all on American people."

The result, while sure to remain in the Bush administration’s good graces, was unlikely to boost Karzai on the home front, according to Rubin.

"President Karzai is now an elected president of Afghanistan, a sovereign state," he said. "He is facing parliamentary elections in the fall, and therefore must be much more responsive to his constituencies who are very concerned about the treatment of Afghans by coalition forces, as indicated by the riots, and some of whom are concerned that the U.S. is pressing the government to destroy their livelihoods without providing meaningful assistance in the form of alternative development."

"There is not an elected official in the world who would destroy the livelihood, or even reduce the incomes, of his key constituents without having something to offer in return," he added. "Poor farmers in Afghanistan are looking for aid on the ground, not a press conference about pomegranates and honeydew melons."

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.