KABUL, Afghanistan -- Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai smoothed over one of the worst patches in the difficult U.S-Afghan relationship with smiles and a compromise Monday that settles -- for now -- a bitter dispute over the fate of Taliban prisoners deemed a threat to U.S. forces.
The transfer of the Parwan detention center outside Kabul is symbolic of the larger tension as U.S. forces depart from Afghanistan after 13 years, leaving behind a fragile democracy with untested ability to defend itself or safeguard the political and economic gains underwritten by billions in U.S. spending.
With a self-imposed deadline of December 2014 for U.S. combat forces to leave Afghanistan, the Obama administration is trying to shape a less-volatile relationship with Mr. Karzai, while insisting on a clean election next year to replace him. Mr. Kerry put his long friendship with Mr. Karzai on full display Monday, praising him for courage and endurance, while Mr. Karzai repeatedly thanked Mr. Kerry and other U.S. officials for sticking by him.
"You, I think, stand on the brink of a remarkable legacy for having brought Afghanistan through an amazingly difficult time," Mr. Kerry told Mr. Karzai. "There are still difficulties ahead; there are still challenges."
Mr. Kerry knows the unpredictable Afghan leader well and was a frequent intermediary for President Barack Obama while serving in the Senate before becoming secretary of state last month. The two nations are trying to sort out difficult issues that often pit U.S. goals for the security of U.S. forces and U.S. interests against Mr. Karzai's keen sense of national sovereignty.
The largest of these issues remains open: whether any U.S. forces that remain in the country for training and counterterrorism operations after 2014 would be immune from prosecution under Afghan law. U.S. officials say that protection is essential for a long-term joint security accord, but it will be a hard sell to Afghans. The same dispute sank a security pact that would have left a training and stability force in Iraq.
U.S. officials say it would be foolish to think the process of separating U.S. and Afghan control will be smooth, and some of Mr. Karzai's recent statements are Exhibit A. New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel canceled a news conference with Mr. Karzai earlier this month after the Afghan leader was widely quoted accusing the Obama administration of colluding with the Taliban insurgency that has tried to overthrow him for a decade. The remark angered U.S. officials and many in Congress.
Mr. Kerry and others have assured Mr. Karzai that direct talks between the United States and the Taliban remain on hold, and Mr. Karzai claimed Monday that his complaint had been misunderstood. He attempted to put into context some of his recent inflammatory remarks, particularly his accusation that U.S. troops had tortured civilians outside Kabul. "When I say something to this effect, it's not to offend our allies, but to correct the offense," Mr. Karzai said. "I am the president of this country. It's my job to provide all the protection I can" for Afghans.
Mr. Kerry seemed ready to let the matter slide. "I am confident that the president absolutely does not believe the United States has any interest except to see the Taliban come to the table to make peace," while helping Afghanistan defend itself, Mr. Kerry said following lengthy meetings at Mr. Karzai's graceful stone palace.
With the Parwan detention center transfer and the U.S. announcement last week that troops would gradually be removed from Wardak province, it seems that Mr. Karzai's most vehement demands have had an impact.
Mr. Kerry and Mr. Karzai praised a prison agreement both men said ensures that Afghan sovereignty over its own affairs is respected. Details of the deal were scant, such as whether the United States would maintain veto power over the release of 30 to 40 "enduring security threats," who U.S. officials say still pose a serious danger to U.S. and Afghan troops.