KABUL — Eager to overcome a bout of bickering, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a show of unusual unity between their two nations on Monday. The friendly display came as the U.S. military ceded control of its last detention facility in Afghanistan, ending a longstanding irritant in relations.
Kerry arrived in the Afghan capital on an unannounced visit amid concerns that Karzai may be jeopardizing progress in the war against extremism with anti-American rhetoric. After a private meeting, Kerry said he and Karzai were "on the same page" on security and reconciliation issues and brushed aside suggestions that relations were in peril.
Karzai infuriated U.S. officials earlier this month by accusing Washington of colluding with Taliban insurgents to keep Afghanistan weak even as the Obama administration pressed ahead with plans to hand off security responsibility to Afghan forces and end NATO's combat mission by the end of next year.
At a joint news conference after their talks, Karzai told reporters that his comments in a nationally televised speech had been misinterpreted by the media. Kerry demurred on that point but said people sometimes say things in public that reflect ideas they have heard from others but don't necessarily agree with.
"I am confident the president (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," Kerry said. He noted that he had specifically raised the comment in question with Karzai and was satisfied with the response.
"We're on the same page," Kerry said. "I don't think there is any disagreement between us and I am very, very comfortable with the president's explanation."
Standing beside Kerry, Karzai said "today was a very good day," citing the turnover of the detention facility at the U.S.-run Bagram military base north of Kabul. He also expressed gratitude for the sacrifices made by Americans.
At the same time, he defended allegations he has made about American troops or their local contractors abusing Afghan civilians. He said his complaints and criticism were not meant to "offend" anyone but rather to protect his people.
Kerry and Karzai's news conference came near the beginning of Kerry's 24-hour visit to the country — his sixth since President Barack Obama took office but his first as Obama's secretary of state. Kerry referred frequently to U.S. respect for Afghan sovereignty and he said the handover of the detention facility was testament to that.
As Kerry flew to Kabul, the U.S. military ceded control of the Parwan detention facility near Bagram, a year after the two sides initially agreed on the transfer. Karzai had demanded control of Parwan as a matter of national sovereignty.
The long-running dispute over the center had thrown a pall over ongoing negotiations for a bilateral security agreement to govern the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014.
There are about 100,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan, including about 66,000 from the United States. Although there is no decision on a residual force, U.S. officials have said as many as 12,000 U.S. and coalition forces could remain.