KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Afghanistan where he and President Hamid Karzai discussed efforts to bring the Taliban into reconciliation talks. The previously unannounced visit follows agreement on the U.S. handover of its last Afghan prisoners.
Kerry said the transfer of the last Afghan prisoners held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan is an appropriate restatement of Washington's commitment to Afghan sovereignty.
The long-negotiated handover was delayed by U.S. concerns that Afghan authorities might release some of the more dangerous inmates at the Parwan detention facility, located near the U.S. Bagram military base. The deal was concluded just hours before Kerry's unannounced stop in Kabul, though, an agreement in which he said the United States has great confidence.
"In this arrangement, the sovereignty of Afghanistan is fully protected, but President Karzai agrees there are certain people there who shouldn't necessarily be out creating problems. And so we're very comfortable," said Kerry.
Karzai said Afghan authorities will review U.S. intelligence reports on those prisoners thought to be a more permanent threat to Afghan and allied security forces.
"On good grounds and confirmed information about an individual who is a threat to us, definitely the Afghan laws have a procedure for that and under Afghan laws we will keep such a person in custody."
Secretary Kerry and President Karzai both endorsed Taliban plans to open an office in Doha as part of the Afghan reconciliation process.
With international security forces preparing to wind-down operations by December 2014, Kerry said the United States hopes Taliban fighters will cut ties with al-Qaida, give up their weapons, and embrace Afghan constitutional protections for women and minorities.
But if they do not, he said President Barack Obama has made clear that the United States will not allow America's considerable sacrifices in this long fight to be reversed.
"The Taliban hopefully will understand that peace and peace talks are the best way to resolve the differences and engage in the political process rather than choose a road of violence," said Kerry.
Taliban leaders have so far refused to meet with Karzai, calling him an agent of the United States. But he said those talks, informally, already are underway.
"It's in their interest to renounce violence. It's in their interest to stop killing their fellow citizens," said Karzai. "It's in their interest to stop hurting the security forces of the international community. It's good for them to come back to their own homeland and to raise their families and children and to have a better standard of living. It's good for them."
This is Kerry's sixth trip to Kabul since 2008, and U.S. officials are counting on his personal history with Karzai to soothe an often-contentious relationship.
Speaking to reporters at the presidential palace, Karzai said the media misinterpreted comments about U.S. forces and Taliban fighters to make it appear that he was accusing them of colluding to destabilize Afghanistan.
But he stood behind allegations that U.S. Special Forces in Wardak province backed local militia accused of torturing and killing civilians, a situation resolved by an agreement to withdraw U.S. forces from that part of the province.
"When I say something publicly to this effect this is not meant to offend our allies but to correct the situation. I'm responsible for the protection of the Afghan people. I'm the president of this country. It's my job," said Karzai.
Kerry said they discussed those comments and he is comfortable with the president's explanation, saying there is no disagreement about the U.S. role to improve Afghan security and encourage the Taliban to make peace, especially ahead of elections next year.
"Mr. President, you, I think, stand on the brink of a remarkable legacy for having brought Afghanistan through an amazingly difficult time. There are still difficulties ahead. There are still challenges. But what you have committed to in the context of this election is historic," said Kerry.
During this visit, Kerry also planned to meet with civil society officials and electoral leaders about preparations for nationwide voting scheduled for April 2014.