The Cable

Karzai’s goals in Washington

Much like the Obama team, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his vast entourage want this week’s visit to Washington to go well. But that won’t stop them from highlighting the disagreements they have with the U.S. administration and pressing the president for movement on several issues important to Afghans. One request that Karzai and friends ...

Much like the Obama team, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his vast entourage want this week’s visit to Washington to go well. But that won’t stop them from highlighting the disagreements they have with the U.S. administration and pressing the president for movement on several issues important to Afghans.

One request that Karzai and friends brought to town is that the Obama team confirm and then speed up their promise to hand over control of the Bagram prison to the Afghan government. Bagram, sometimes called "Obama’s Guantanamo" because of the secretive procedures use to detain and interrogate prisoners there, held 645 prisoners captured on the battlefield as of September 2009.

The Obama administration has never announced exactly when it would transfer Bagram prison back to Afghan control, although it has been reported that the end of 2010 is the deadline. Karzai’s spokesman, Waheed Omar, said Monday that Karzai would press Obama to move that date up when he meets with the president on Wednesday. He also said that Karzai wished to confirm that the plan to transfer control was still operative in the first place.

As for the fate of several dozen the non-Afghan prisoners there, whom the Karzai government does not want to be in charge of, Omar said, "That discussion is ongoing." U.S. military officials say the U.S. has started negotiations to move those prisoners back to their home countries ahead of the transfer, as both the Bush and Obama administrations have done with Guantanamo prisoners, with mixed results.

Overall, Karzai’s message when he gets to Washington will be "We’ll be looking to the future, not to the past," Omar said, echoing the Obama teams’ desire to paper over the recent strains in the relationship that led to Karzai to lash out at the international community, at one point threatening to join the Taliban.

But, "however nice we can be, we will still raise issues where there have been disagreements," Omar said, and Karzai wants to talk about civilian casualties in Afghanistan, detention center policies, military night raids, and other concerns of ordinary Afghans.

Reconciliation is going to be a big theme of the week, and Karzai’s message to Washington on that front is that he will agree to "no compromises" on fundamental issues such as women’s rights and basic freedoms in any forthcoming deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Omar said.

The Obama team will want to talk (quietly) about corruption in the Afghan system, and Omar said the Karzai’s line on that is, "Corruption is not something that’s only connected to the Afghan government."

Omar was speaking to an audience at the Washington office of Radio Free Europe – Radio Liberty, which held a session to unveil Freedom House’s new report on press freedom. That survey labeled Afghanistan’s media environment as "not free."

Omar argued that the survey wasn’t fair because it uses the same index to measure countries that are at various stages in their media development. He also pointed out that the Freedom House rating had risen considerably within the "not free" designation since the Taliban were overthrown in 2002.

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