President Bush said Monday that U.S. troops in Afghanistan will remain under U.S. control despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s request for more authority over them.
“Of course, our troops will respond to U.S. commanders,” Bush said, with Karzai standing at his side at the White House. At the the same time, Bush said the relationship between Washington and Kabul is “to cooperate and consult.”
Bush also said that Afghan prisoners under U.S. control in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere, would be slowly returned to their home countries.
“We will do this over time,” he said. “We have to make sure the facilities are there.”
Bush had high praise for Karzai as a valued anti-terror partner and credited the Afghan leader with “showing countries in the neighborhood what’s possible.”
Issues include opium
But Karzai came to their meeting with a long list of grievances. Among them: more control over U.S. military operations, custody of Afghan prisoners held by the United States and more assistance in fighting opium trade.
As for the opium trade, Bush said, “We have to work together to eradicate poppy crops.”
Karzai said that he hoped Afghanistan would be free of poppy crops within five to six years and that Afghan farmers could find alternative crops like honey dew melons and pomegranates.
There are about 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, costing about $1 billion a month. That is in addition to approximately 8,200 troops from NATO countries in Kabul and elsewhere.
Ahead of his White House meeting, Karzai said he wanted greater control over American military operations in his country and punishment for any U.S. troops who mistreat prisoners. He cited reports of prisoner abuse by American forces at the main military prison north of Kabul, the Afghan capital.
His Oval Office talks with Bush were the two leaders’ first meeting since last September, during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York.
Deadly anti-American protests across Afghanistan have killed at least 15 people and threatened a security crisis for Karzai’s feeble central government.
The White House blamed a Newsweek report — later retracted by the magazine — for igniting the violence. The May 9 story said Pentagon investigators had found evidence that interrogators at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, placed copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, in washrooms to unsettle suspects and flushed one down a toilet.
But Karzai blamed opponents of his ties with the United States and of his reconciliation efforts with the ousted fundamentalist Taliban regime. Afghanistan is moving toward September parliamentary elections, the next landmark in its path toward democracy.
Karzai began a four-day U.S. visit on Sunday by sharply denying a reported State Department cable that said he has not worked strongly enough to curtail production of opium, the raw material for heroin.
“We are going to have probably all over the country at least 30 percent poppies reduced,” Karzai said on CNN’s “Late Edition.” “So we have done our job. The Afghan people have done our job.
“Now the international community must come and provide alternative livelihood to the Afghan people, which they have not done so far. Let us stop this blame,” he added.
Production of opium has soared since the fall of the repressive Taliban government in 2001, leading to warnings that the former al-Qaida haven is fast turning into a “narco-state” despite the presence of more than 20,000 foreign troops.
Last year, cultivation reached a record 323,700 acres and yielded nearly 90 percent of the world’s supply.
A diplomatic cable sent May 13 from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and addressed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said a U.S.-sponsored crackdown on the world’s largest narcotics industry had not been very effective, in part because Karzai “has been unwilling to assert strong leadership,” The New York Times reported Sunday.
Taking issue, Karzai said, “Instead of blaming Afghanistan, the international community must now come and fulfill its own objective to the Afghan people, and they must not spend money on projects that they cannot deliver properly in Afghanistan, and on creation of forces that are not effective.”
Bush sees 'remarkable progress'
In his weekly radio address Saturday, Bush said Afghanistan’s new constitution, elected president and upcoming elections — all since the 2001 U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban — represent “remarkable progress.”
“A nation that once knew only the terror of the Taliban is now seeing a rebirth of freedom, and we will help them succeed,” the president added.
But the protests and other difficulties in Afghanistan show the complexities involved in turning chaotic, poor countries with long histories of violence into stable democracies.
Karzai’s four-day U.S. visit includes meetings with Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, congressional lawmakers and the new head of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz. Karzai received an honorary degree Sunday from Boston University and will pick up another at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.