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US ambassador: Relationship with Kabul strained, but not beyond repair

Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed the Loya Jirga, a gathering of Afghan leaders, on Nov. 24, 2013, when the group endorsed a proposed security agreement with the U.S. to keep a military training and assistance force in Afghanistan past the end of 2014.

KABUL — The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan painted a picture of an increasingly fraught relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a media roundtable, but said the U.S. remains hopeful a security agreement allowing foreign troops to stay past the end of the year can be finalized.

“The president (Karzai) has legitimate concerns that he position his country in the best way possible going forward, and I understand and accept that,” Ambassador James Cunningham told journalists in Kabul on Monday. “I don’t think he’s going about it in the right way, but he has to make these decisions, and we’ll try to adapt to them as we can.”

In some ways the long-troubled relationship between Karzai and the American government has never been more frayed.

With all foreign combat troops set to leave Afghanistan by Dec. 31, negotiations over a bilateral security agreement the United States says is necessary to keep a residual force in the country past the end of 2014 have become an acrimonious public dispute. Karzai’s accusations that a recent NATO airstrike caused mass civilian casualties — and subsequent revelations that authorities used old photos of unrelated events to bolster their case — and the government’s decision to release dozens of prisoners the U.S. accuses of being dangerous insurgents have further strained relations.

A story from The Washington Post Tuesday that quotes unidentified Afghan officials as saying Karzai has a list of insurgent-style attacks — including a recent restaurant massacre in Kabul that left 21 people dead — that he suspects were orchestrated by the U.S. is sure to deepen the rift.

Cunningham said he is dismayed by what he sees an increasingly negative tone from Karzai, especially in respect to Kabul’s harsh rhetoric over the airstrike that killed civilians and his muted response to the restaurant massacre, in which a Lebanese bistro popular with foreigners was targeted.

“More care for fact and more care for civility in our dialogue in public would be a good thing,” Cunningham said.

Karzai spokesmen did not immediately return calls for comment.

Karzai has refused to sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S., making additional demands after the agreement was negotiated and approved by his largely hand-picked national council of elders, who overwhelmingly urged him to sign it back in November.

While Cunningham said the U.S. is committed to supporting a peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, he said Karzai’s demand that the U.S. deliver peace talks before he signs the agreement is unrealistic.

The Taliban, who have denounced Karzai as a “foreign puppet,” have vowed to continue fighting until all coalition troops are out of the country. But the U.S. and NATO want to leave behind a force of about 10,000 — consisting mainly of military advisers and counter-terrorism units — to help train Afghanistan’s army and police to provide security and stability.

Diplomatic efforts to launch peace talks with the guerrilla movement have foundered several times in the past over that and other issues.

“One of (Karzai’s) stated objectives is to have the beginning of peace negotiations with the Taliban,” Cunningham said. “Well, that’s not something that’s in our power to deliver.”

Asked if the U.S. was simply waiting out Karzai’s term, set to expire after presidential elections in April, to negotiate with his successor, Cunningham said stopping negotiations now would only further the uncertainty building in the country over the future of U.S.-Afghan relations.

U.S. officials have said they need the agreement to be signed as soon as possible so they can plan for a follow-on force, but have stopped short of setting a deadline.

“As far as waiting for his successor, that’s something that we would prefer not to do because of the public and political implications of deferring the, essentially the fate of the agreement, until some time in an unpredictable future,” he said. “We don’t know when a new government will be in place.”

Despite the tensions, Cunningham sounded an optimistic note about the possibility of repairing relations with Karzai.

“We’ve been through numerous cycles of ups and downs in our relations with President Karzai over the years, and I’ve been here now over two and a half years, so I’ve seen several iterations of this,” he said. “He, himself, freely acknowledges that he can be a difficult interlocutor, and I freely acknowledge that it’s not always very easy dealing with Americans. We’ve always found a way to, when we’ve had strong disagreements, we’ve always found a way to deal with them and move forward, and I’m hopeful that will be the case this time.”

druzin.heath@stripes.com
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

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