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Bush, Karzai Sign 'Strategic Partnership'

Presidents Karzai (left) and Bush in Washington yesterday Washington/Prague, 24 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. President George W. Bush signed a document yesterday on a "strategic partnership" between their countries.

Pentagon officials say the agreement shows Afghanistan's willingness to allow U.S. forces to continue using installations like the Bagram Air Field north of Kabul as a key logistical center.

But the joint declaration leaves two sensitive issues unspecified: the status of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and the limits on their actions. Karzai reportedly made several demands during his private meeting with Bush the same day. They included Karzai's desire for more control over U.S. forces in his country and for the return of Afghan detainees from U.S. custody. Karzai also raised concerns about abuse of Afghans in U.S. military custody.

But Bush made no commitment on Afghan control over U.S. military operations or when Washington might be willing to give the Afghan government control over prisoners.

The Afghan president fell short in his goal of persuading Washington to turn over Afghan prisoners to his government. Bush also made no commitment on Karzai's request to give Kabul more control over U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

The document on a "strategic partnership" restates the existing procedures on operations by forces in the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition. It says U.S. and coalition forces will continue to have the freedom of action needed to conduct "appropriate military operations based on consultations and pre-agreed procedures."

Bush was emphatic that U.S. forces would take orders only from their American commanders.

"In terms of more [Afghan government] say over our military, our relationship is one of cooperate and consult," Bush said at a brief White House news conference with Karzai. "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 [Afghan] government."

Karzai said on 21 May that he wanted Bush to ensure that U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan consulted with his government before raiding Afghan homes and villages in the search for Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. Karzai made did not comment on the issue at the joint press conference yesterday.

Bush was less emphatic on Karzai's demand that Washington turn over Afghan prisoners captured since U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. About 500 Afghans are being held at the U.S. military's detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Hundreds more are thought to be at 20 detention centers around Afghanistan -- including a controversial facility at the Bagram Air Field north of Kabul.

Karzai said it was right for the United States to hold those detainees initially. But now, he said, it is time for Afghanistan to deal with them. But Bush warned that the repatriation of detainees at Guantanamo could take time.

"Our policy [regarding Guantanamo] is -- one -- where we want the people to be sent home, but -- two -- we've got to make sure the [prison] facilities are there [in Afghanistan], facilities where these people can be housed and fed and guarded."

The two men also were asked about the abuse of Afghan prisoners in U.S. military custody -- including the deaths of two Afghan men at Bagram that the Pentagon is investigating as homicides. Karzai said Kabul does not think those deaths were the result of any U.S. government policy.

"The prisoner-abuse thing is not at all a thing that we attribute to anybody else but those individuals [who perpetrated it]," Karzai said. "The Afghan people are grateful, very, very much to the American people and recognize that individual acts do not reflect either on governments or on societies."

Karzai also said he thinks a series of bloody demonstrations in Afghanistan recently were not prompted by a "Newsweek" magazine article -- since retracted -- that had suggested that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo had desecrated the Koran. Instead, Karzai said he thinks the protests were organized by opponents of a long-term strategic partnership between Afghanistan and the United States.

Senior U.S. officials -- including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- have denounced the article and blamed its publication for the deadly demonstrations.

Rumsfeld's conclusion was supported by Radek Sikorski, a former deputy foreign minister and deputy defense minister of Poland.

Sikorski, who studies Afghanistan at the American Enterprise Institute, a private policy center in Washington, pointed out that the U.S. military often is careful in the way it trains its personnel working in foreign countries to ensure that they don't offend local sensibilities.

But Sikorski said that is not enough. He noted that people in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries often take offense at comments about Islam made by some Christian preachers in the United States. And he said he thinks the recent demonstrations were genuinely prompted by the "Newsweek" article.

Sikorski also said U.S. forces should heed Karzai's concerns when they want to raid Afghan homes and villages.

"When I was in Kabul last year, people told me that when Russians, during their occupation [of Afghanistan] during the 1980s, searched Afghan houses, they would send women to search the female quarters of a house -- the officers' wives, for example -- whereas American soldiers would just barge in and search the female quarters of houses, which Afghans find very offensive. Now, surely, if the Russians could do it, so could [the United States]."

Sikorski said Afghanistan might need U.S. help and be grateful for defeating the Taliban. But, he concluded, relations between Kabul and the United States will remain strained until U.S. soldiers learn to act in accordance with Afghan culture.

(RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz contributed to this report from Prague.)