Bush Deflects Afghan's Request for Return of Prisoners


New York Times

May 23, 2005

WASHINGTON, May 23 - President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan spoke Monday with President Bush about the treatment of Afghan prisoners held by the United States. But Mr. Bush made no commitment on when he might be willing to give the Kabul government control over prisoners taken by the military.

Before his arrival in the Oval Office on Monday, Mr. Karzai had denounced the abuse of prisoners and demanded that the United States return to his government all Afghan terrorism suspects currently being held. But during the leaders' joint news conference, Mr. Bush made clear that he was not ready to take that step.

"Part of the issue is to make sure there is a place where the prisoners can be held," Mr. Bush said, adding a promise that Afghan prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, would be sent back "over time."

The two also signed an agreement that American officials say underscores Afghanistan's willingness to give American forces access to Bagram Air Base and freedom to conduct operations after rapid "consultations" with the government.

The issue of prisoners is linked to the military agreement. At least two Afghan men have died in American custody at Bagram, and other abuses have been described there as well. The issue has taken on symbolic importance in Afghanistan, just as the Abu Ghraib prison has in Iraq.

Though they went to some lengths to appear in accord at a news conference, the meeting occurred at a time of unusual tension between Mr. Bush and Mr. Karzai, whom the United States helped install after ousting the Taliban three and a half years ago.

Mr. Karzai had also complained that the United States and its allies were not doing enough to help come up with alternatives to poppy cultivation for heroin, which is currently estimated to account for 40 to 60 percent of Afghanistan's economy.

Mr. Bush spoke of his dream that the Afghan economy would return to its traditional agricultural roots, cultivating honeydew melons and pomegranates. But those crops bring farmers far less money than the drug trade can.

Mr. Karzai, who was criticized in a recent State Department memorandum that questioned his effectiveness in fighting drug trafficking, said Monday that poppy production was being reduced because of an eradication program by his government. "Now if this trend continues" he told Mr. Bush, "we'll have no poppies, hopefully, in Afghanistan in another five or six years."

Mr. Bush praised Mr. Karzai effusively, opening the news conference by saying, "I am honored to stand by the first democratically elected leader in the 5,000-year history of Afghanistan." Mr. Karzai, noting that Vice President Dick Cheney had attended his inauguration and that Mrs. Bush had visited, said to Mr. Bush, "Guess whose turn it is now to come to Afghanistan." Mr. Bush laughed and said, "Thank you for the invitation."

The most sensitive issue in the meeting was the treatment of prisoners at Bagram and other American facilities. "Yes, he did bring up the prisoner abuse," Mr. Bush said, with Mr. Karzai standing next to him. But the president went into no details.

Mr. Karzai said, "We are, of course, sad about that." But he quickly noted that an Italian has been "kidnapped by an Afghan man" and used that to drive home the fact that "individual acts do not reflect either on governments or on societies."

The document the two men signed was called a "strategic partnership," words that echo similar documents that have been signed over the years with European nations, Japan, South Korea and other allies. It commits the two countries to "encourage the advancement of freedom and democracy in the wider region" and encourages American investment in Afghanistan. But the most sensitive section concerns the status of American forces and the limits on their actions, which were left unspecified.

"The U.S. and coalition forces are to continue to have the freedom of action required to conduct appropriate military operations based on consultations and pre-agreed procedures," the document reads.

Two administration officials said those procedures include rapid ways for American forces to identify military or security targets and obtain agreements to conduct raids and other antiterrorism operations. But they would not be more specific, nor would they allow their names to be used, because the procedural issues are sensitive and they did not want to be cited as authorities on the agreement.

Lawrence Di Rita, the Pentagon spokesman, said the statement released Monday restated existing procedures governing operations by American and other coalition forces and did not represent any changes.

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said that in any event, American troops would retain the right to fire in self-defense.

And Mr. Bush said, "Of course our troops will respond to U.S. commanders, but our commanders and our diplomatic mission there is in a consultative relationship with the government."

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting for this article.