KABUL, Afghanistan -- The top U.S. military chief in Afghanistan said Monday that his team is working as fast as possible to resolve issues that have infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai, including the delay in handing over a U.S.-run detention center and the withdrawal of U.S. special forces from a troubled province neighboring Kabul.
The efforts illustrate the growing tensions between the commander, Gen. Joseph Dunford, and an Afghan ally who is struggling to break free from international influence and establish independence after more than a decade relying on a foreign military force for security.
The two latest stumbling blocks in the relationship have delayed a round of talks on a pivotal U.S.-Afghan security accord to govern the American troops expected to stay past the end of 2014, when the NATO-led coalition ends its combat mission. Talks on the unfinished pact were supposed to occur in Kabul last week.
"We're working issues with a sense of urgency," Gen. Dunford said in his first one-on-one interview since he took command. "But the issues are complex, and they're fundamental, ... so you have to get it right."
The general is trying to address a series of increasingly strident decrees that Mr. Karzai has laid down since the commander took charge five weeks ago. It started just days after he arrived, when the Afghan president insisted that the coalition cease all airstrikes after another NATO airstrike caused civilian casualties. More recently, Mr. Karzai has demanded that U.S. special operations forces leave Wardak province, just outside the capital, after allegations that U.S. commandos and their Afghan partners abused local citizens -- a charge that Gen. Dunford denies.
Speaking in his office in the capital, Kabul, Gen. Dunford would not say when the detention center would be handed over. He also would not set a date for withdrawal of U.S. commandos from Wardak province, saying he's working with the Afghan defense and interior ministers to come up with a plan.
Throughout, Mr. Karzai has kept up a steady stream of invective in public remarks, even accusing the United States of complicity with the Taliban in keeping the country unstable, as an excuse to stay longer. That has spurred anger on Capitol Hill.
"What to do about President Karzai? Isn't he making success more problematic? He sure is," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, in a speech Monday to the Council on Foreign Relations. "Karzai's absurd remarks weaken the support of the American people, ... and they raise doubts in many, if not most, American minds about the wisdom of a long-term strategic relationship with Afghanistan, with all of its costs and risks."
Last week, Gen. Dunford warned his commanders to raise their security levels, saying Mr. Karzai's comments could stir more anti-American sentiment and spur more insider attacks. But he has remained circumspect and studiously polite in public, seeking to use face-to-face meetings with Mr. Karzai to ease tension and temper the president's angry demands for immediate change.