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 American 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 agreement 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 take place in Kabul last week.
"We're working issues with a sense of urgency," Dunford told The Associated Press 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."
Speaking in his office in the capital, Kabul, Dunford would not say when the detention center would be handed over.
Dunford is trying to address a series of increasingly strident decrees that Karzai has laid down since the commander took charge five weeks ago. It started just days after he arrived, when Karzai insisted that the coalition cease all airstrikes after another NATO airstrike caused civilian casualties. More recently, Karzai has demanded that U.S. special operations forces leave Wardak province, after allegations that U.S. commandos and their Afghan partners abused local citizens – a charge Dunford denies.
Dunford would not set a date for the withdrawal of U.S. commandos from Wardak province, just outside the capital, saying he's working with the Afghan defense and interior ministers to come up with a plan.
Throughout, Karzai has kept up a steady stream of invective in public remarks, even accusing the U.S. 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 Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, 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, Dunford warned his commanders to raise their security levels, saying 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 Karzai to ease tension and temper Karzai's angry demands for immediate change. Dunford, a Marine Corps general with a master's degree in government from Georgetown University and another in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said it's simply a matter of "working the issues."
"In all honesty, it hasn't been that contentious on a personal level," Dunford said.
To resolve the airstrike issue, Dunford agreed to limit but not end them, after 10 civilians were among the 14 Afghans killed in a coalition airstrike against insurgents on Feb. 13 in eastern Afghanistan.
In the case of the Parwan Detention Center, next to the huge U.S.-run Bagram Air Field, Dunford said that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had asked for a week to resolve the handover problems during a phone conversation with Karzai on Saturday, but the general said that did not mean there was a seven-day clock ticking to a new handover date.
Dunford said the U.S. must still figure out an acceptable way to monitor what happens to the detainees after the handover.
"We have to be assured that ... detainees will have humane treatment ... in accordance with international conventions," he said.
"What we have to do is do that in a way that is consistent with Afghan sovereignty."
U.S. officials also want to make sure that some 30 to 40 detainees they consider dangerous will not be set free. Dunford said Karzai has promised to comply, but the challenge has been "coming up with the right legal framework to do that."
Dunford also insists the eventual transition of U.S. special operations forces from Wardak will happen, but only after he and Afghan security officials agree on a plan to safely hand over the province, considered a gateway for insurgents to stage attacks on Kabul.
Karzai's deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. commandos from Wardak expired early last week, but the president relented temporarily when Dunford asked for more time.
"What I told the president was that I understood his intent and wanted to comply with it, and that we were going to draw down in Wardak in a manner that was consistent with transition," Dunford said. "What I believe he agreed to let us do is work with the Afghan national security forces to make sure ... the security is maintained."
"It's not a question of we're being recalcitrant and not coming out of Wardak. It's just like everywhere else in Afghanistan, we're in a process of transition," he said.
But Karzai's patience is wearing thin, according to his spokesman Aimal Faizi.
"There should be some sort of respect for the president of a country, but his demand is not being taken seriously," Faizi told the AP on Monday.
Afghan officials contend that rogue Afghan militias in league with U.S. forces in Wardak province kidnapped nine local men, and they tortured and executed others.
U.S. officials reject charges of torture, kidnapping or extrajudicial killing. They said four of the men reported missing had been detained in joint U.S.-Afghan security force raids, but they don't know what happened to the other five.
Faizi said the Afghan defense ministry further investigated the charges and concluded in a report to the National Security Council on Sunday that a man he described as an Afghan-American had conducted torture and extradition of locals on behalf of U.S. special operations forces. He said the man was videotaped torturing a suspect, with other Afghan forces watching the interrogation. Faizi said U.S. forces promised but failed to turn the man over to Afghan authorities.
Dunford said the Afghan-American in question did at one time work for U.S. special operations forces, but not at the time the alleged abuses occurred.
He said a senior military officer concluded a third U.S. investigation into these allegations on Sunday.
"I can tell you authoritatively, at the time of the incident, the detainees were not in a U.S. facility," he said. "There were no U.S. forces in or around that incident, and the interpreter was not in our employ at the time of the incident."
Dunford's confrontations with the Afghan president are set against an early and ferocious start to the traditional Afghan spring fighting season. Unseasonably warm weather has melted snow on mountain passes and on dirt roads and paths in remote areas, making it easier for insurgents to plant roadside bombs.
U.S. officials say the Taliban already are focusing the majority of their firepower on Afghan forces – many of which are operating mostly independently across the country for the first time.
Dunford said he had confidence the Afghan forces would perform well.
"Can the Afghans this summer assume the lead? Yes," he said, predicting they would emerge a more confident force by next fall.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed from Washington.
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