A security pact at stake, US ignores Karzai's jabs

AP News
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Posted: Nov 18, 2011 1:29 PM
A security pact at stake, US ignores Karzai's jabs

U.S. policymakers aren't too happy with what they're hearing so far from an Afghan political gathering considering a long-term security pact with the U.S.

But they're likely to bless the outcome, so long as the gathering endorses an American military presence after 2014.

As seen from Washington, President Hamid Karzai's sit-down with Afghanistan's elders has gotten off to a rocky start: demands for the end of American special operations "night raids," a pair of Taliban rockets fired toward the gathering site and Karzai's declaration of Iran as his nation's cherished "brother."

Yet the Obama administration is trying to take a longer view, and dismisses much of the rhetoric as Afghan domestic politics.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner voiced support for the Afghan meeting, calling it a "chance for Afghans to use this traditional forum to discuss the future relationship between our two countries."

"We believe the end result is going to be an affirmation of that partnership," Toner told reporters Thursday.

Privately, American officials stressed that while they weren't happy with Karzai's rhetoric, they were focusing on what is at stake: A long-term strategy to enhance Afghanistan's stability and security, and prevent the country from becoming a sanctuary for terrorists.

The chief U.S. goal is more solid footing for a continued military counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan after American combat troops leave in 2014.

More than a decade after Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida committed the Sept. attacks, Afghanistan remains mired in conflict with a resilient Taliban-led insurgency determined to retake control of the country. Reconciliation efforts have stalled.

Underlining the threat, insurgents fired two rockets Thursday at the site of the meeting. Both missed their target, but the attack served as a reminder of the opposition to Karzai's efforts from armed anti-government groups.

The grand council, or "loya jirga," was to continue until Saturday. It brought tribal chiefs and various powerbrokers to the capital of Kabul for discussion about a written agreement the U.S. calls a Strategic Partnership Document, a nonbinding set of principles guiding the two nations' future security relationship and other aspects of U.S. support.

Washington wants to maintain a post-2014 force of possibly several thousand Americans. That's partly to assuage Afghan worries that the U.S. might abandon Afghanistan and partly to continue the hunt for militants.

The residual force would train Afghan forces, gather intelligence and conduct some counterterrorism operations, though several questions remain unresolved over how they would operate in the country. Those sticking points, which boil down to fights over U.S. leeway and Afghan sovereignty, have held up final negotiation of the document for months.

The U.S. hopes to get the agreement done ahead of an international conference next month about Afghanistan's future.

The plan depends on the backing of Karzai, a mercurial leader who has increasingly sought to boost his popularity by denouncing the U.S.

Karzai opened the meeting of 2,200 Afghan leaders by likening his nation to a lion that can work with the U.S., but one that "doesn't like strangers entering his house" or "that his sons are taken out of his house during the night."

He weighed in on the U.S.-Iran divide, calling the Islamic republic a brother and saying it has shown greater "rationality" than the United States. He pledged to deepen cooperation between Afghanistan and Iran.

Karzai recently pledged to side with Pakistan should that country eventually go to war with the U.S. attack, a statement the Obama administration brushed aside with no public criticism of Karzai.

U.S. officials still see Karzai as the best partner against al-Qaida and other Islamist extremists and the best hope for Afghanistan's peaceful development. Given that assessment, they are left biting their tongues while Karzai plays to anti-U.S. feelings, hoping even that it can oddly benefit the United States by strengthening his ability to deliver a new security pact.

At the same time, Karzai needs American military and financial strength to sustain his weak government's battle against the Taliban insurgency, and he supports a continued military presence.

Karzai doesn't need the elders' permission to broker a pact with the U.S., but he wants their stamp of approval to strengthen his negotiating position with the United States.

The gambit puts the U.S. in a complicated position: hoping Karzai can bring legitimacy to U.S. plans, even if that would imply difficult talks ahead on how American troops can operate in Afghanistan.

The biggest stumbling block centers on Karzai's demand that the U.S. end night raids, which involve American troops swooping in, sometimes in helicopters, to search Afghan homes. Many in Afghanistan see the raids as an affront to the sanctity of their private homes. Some analysts argue the raids do more harm than good.

Another long-standing issue concerns control of prisons that house suspected militants.

At the Pentagon, officials cautioned that negotiations on the future U.S.-Afghan relationship were only just beginning. They said the rejection of night raids wasn't a decisive factor at this point, but insisted that operations conducted under the cloak of darkness were an effective way to maintain pressure on militants. More quick-strike operations probably will be needed as American troop numbers shrink over the next three years.

"The night raids do perform a very valuable and necessary function," said Capt. John Kirby, Pentagon spokesman. "What we're trying to do with Afghanistan is ... develop a strong partnership moving forward, and that's what our focus is on. And we're not looking at that in terms of deal-breakers or red lines."

Influential Sen. Sen. Lindsey Graham took a tougher tone, characterizing Karzai's demands as "not helpful." Speaking Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the South Carolina Republican said the night raids were responsible for 82 percent of 2,800 detainees currently held by the U.S. military at its main base in Afghanistan.

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Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Pennington contributed to this report.