Hamid Karzai

Smoke billows out from a compound after it was attacked by militants in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday. Taliban insurgents attacked a compound housing foreigners in the Afghan capital Wednesday hours after President Barack Obama made a visit.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s president has branded his U.S. allies as corrupt, wasteful and contemptuous of Afghan lives. Once he even threatened to join the Taliban. Nonetheless, Hamid Karzai signed a deal that could keep thousands of U.S. troops in his country for years.

Despite his rhetoric, Karzai needs international support if Afghanistan is to survive economically and avoid descending into civil war like it did when the Soviets left two decades ago.

The signing of the long-term strategic partnership, which will govern the relationship between the two countries from the end of 2014 until 2024, was welcomed on Wednesday by leading Afghans as a positive message that the West will not turn its back on their country.

It also gives Afghanistan much-needed military support to deal with an insurgency that shows no signs of abating. Less than two hours after President Barack Obama left Afghanistan early Wednesday, the Taliban carried out a brazen suicide attack in the capital against a heavily fortified compound housing hundreds
of foreigners.

“Karzai was thinking that maybe it is good for the national interest of Afghanistan, its stability, peace and security. Without the Americans, peace and stability is difficult,” said Wahid Muzhda, a leading political analyst and ethnic Pashtun.

Even neighboring Pakistan, which has been accused by the U.S. of not doing enough to dismantle insurgent safe havens on its territory, would benefit from a continued American presence in Afghanistan, some analysts say.

Riffat Hussain, a professor of Defense Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, acknowledged that some Pakistani officials, especially in the military, are worried that the U.S.-supported Afghan government is too cozy with Pakistan’s archenemy, India. But he said that many officials are even more concerned about what will happen in Afghanistan if international forces leave.

“Many in Pakistan think continued American military and NATO presence is not necessarily a bad thing because in the absence of their presence, Afghanistan is more likely to descend into chaos,” Hussain said.

The agreement is widely expected to be approved by the 249-member Afghan parliament, possibly as early as next week.

“As long as it is good for the country and good for the Afghan people, we would like to vote in favor of it. We would like to accept that partnership with a very clear stand, a stand which will assure Afghans that Afghanistan will be a prosperous country,” said parliament member Shukria Barekzai, a Pashtun.

The partnership accord has been described as the capstone in a series of agreements that Afghanistan is signing with U.S. allies. A failure to make a deal with the United States would have endangered pacts it has already signed with America’s NATO allies, including Britain.

“The signing of strategic partnerships with European countries and especially the United States is to the benefit of Afghanistan,” said Nazir Ahmad Hanafi, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament and supreme religious council who hails from the western city of Herat.

The deal signed overnight by Obama and Karzai does not commit the United States to any specific troop presence or spending. But it does give the U.S. the option of keeping forces in Afghanistan after combat troops withdraw by 2014 for two specific purposes: training of Afghan forces and operations against al-Qaida. The terror group is present in Pakistan but has only a nominal presence inside Afghanistan.

Officials have previously said as many as 20,000 U.S. special operations forces and other troops may remain after the combat mission ends, but that still must still be negotiated. Those troops would be on the ground for at least another decade.

Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, said Obama “delivered a strong and necessary message to the Afghans that the United States will remain committed to their security.” But he criticized Obama for implying that the war was winding down.

“I do not think this is the beginning of the end of the war,” Exum said. “I think it is misleading to say we are winding down the war. The war does not stop and start according to our desires, and it will not stop for the Afghans. It will also not stop for the many U.S. special operations forces that will continue to fight by, with, and through the Afghans,” Exum said.

Afghanistan also desperately needs support for its future development and to keep its economy afloat. The World Bank has said the country will require billions of dollars in aid for a decade or more, especially if it hopes to fund services such as security. Last year, Afghanistan received $15.7 billion in aid, representing more than 90 percent of its public spending, according to the World Bank.

The U.S. has spent more than $20 billion in the last two years to build up the Afghan army and police — a key part of its exit strategy in 2014. It hopes to have a 352,000-strong force ready by the end of the year, so it can hand over the lead for security around the country to the Afghans by mid-2013. The U.S. and other allied countries will then move into a support role.

Without the strategic agreement there would have been no legal framework for continued U.S. assistance to Afghanistan. To keep the army and police operating past 2014 will require at least $4.1 billion a year — money that could have vanished if a deal was not signed.

“The commitment from the United States that it will support Afghanistan politically, economically and militarily” is “good for the Afghan people,” said Fazal Sangcharaki, a spokesman for opposition politician Abdullah Abdullah, who lost to Karzai in the 2009 presidential elections.

But despite their welcome, Afghan politicians were critical of the Karzai government for not making the text public before it was signed. They also said that most ordinary Afghans had no clue that Obama and Karzai had signed it, as most were asleep and would have found out only after the U.S. president left following a secretive trip in which he spent less than seven hours on the ground in Afghanistan.

“When he came at midnight, the people of Afghanistan were asleep,” said Nasrullah Sadeqizada, an ethnic Hazara parliamentarian from central Daykundi province. “The U.S. president should come during the day and hold a public celebration. But unfortunately he came at midnight when the people of Afghanistan were asleep and left before they woke up.”

The Taliban interpreted his overnight trip as a sign they are winning.

“He can’t even come here without telling anyone. To me that shows that Barack Obama is afraid of the Taliban movement,” Taliban spokesman Qari Youssef said. “Coming to Afghanistan without telling anyone clearly shows how much they have achieved in the past 10 years.”

Printed on Thursday, May 3, 2012 as: Pact achieved despite Karzai’s rhetoric

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned photographs of U.S. soldiers posing with the bloodied remains of three suicide bombers as “disgusting” and said Thursday that only a quicker exit of international forces can prevent such missteps.

Karzai joined top American officials in denouncing that 2-year-old photos, the latest in a string of embarrassing controversies that have jeopardized relations between the two countries in the midst of negotiations over the withdrawal of foreign troops.

He also warned that “similar incidents of an odious nature” in the past sparked angry reactions from Afghans, including violent protests that left dozens dead, although there was no immediate sign of a popular backlash. The photos were published in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times. One shows members of the 82nd Airborne Division posing in 2010 with Afghan police holding the severed legs of a suicide bomber. The same platoon a few months later was sent to investigate the remains of three insurgents reported to have accidentally blown themselves up — and soldiers again posed and mugged for a photo with the remains, the newspaper said.

A photo from the second incident appears to show the hand of a dead insurgent resting on a U.S. soldier’s shoulder as the soldier smiles. “It is such a disgusting act to take photos with body parts and then share it with others,” Karzai said. “The only way to put an end to such painful experiences is through an accelerated and full transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces.”

Printed on Friday, April 20, 2012 as: Afghans denounce recent photos of US military posing with limbs

Men stand next to blood stains and charred remains inside a home where witnesses say Afghans were killed by a U.S. soldier in Panjwai, Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday. An Afghan youth recounted the terrifying scene in his home as a lone U.S. soldier moved stealthily through it during a killing spree.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — Charges against an American soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians are expected to be filed within a week and if the case goes to court the trial will be held in the United States, said a legal expert with the U.S. military familiar with the investigation.

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is suspected of leaving a U.S. base in southern Afghanistan, entering homes and gunning down nine children, four men and three women before dawn on March 11. Bales, a 38-year-old married father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, is currently being held at a U.S. military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The shootings have further strained ties between the U.S. government and President Hamid Karzai who has accused the U.S. military of not cooperating with a delegation he appointed to investigate the killings in Panjwai district of Kandahar province. The Afghan investigative team also is not convinced that one soldier could have single-handedly left his base, walked to two villages, shot and killed 16 civilians and set fire to some of their bodies.

Syed Mohammad Azeen, a tribal elder from Balandi village, said Sunday in Kandahar that he and other villagers believe more than a dozen soldiers were involved. Other villagers said they saw 16 to 20 U.S. troops in the villages. It’s unclear whether the soldiers the villagers saw were part of a search party that left to look for Bales, who was reported missing.

Allegations that 16 to 20 people were involved in the killings are “completely false,” according to a U.S. official familiar with the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.

In an attempt to prove there was only one perpetrator involved in the shootings, the U.S. military has shown Afghan officials footage from a surveillance video that shows a soldier walking up to the base, laying down his weapon and raising his arms in surrender.

Karzai said Friday that the video, shot by an aerial blimp above the base, was “not convincing” and accused the U.S. of not aiding Afghan investigators.

The legal expert, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the case, insisted that there had been good cooperation between U.S. and Afghan investigative teams and that Afghan officials had provided important evidence for the case.

The military denied the Afghan team's request to interview Bales because that would have violated his rights as an accused in the case.

The expert also said that U.S. officials were discussing the best way to compensate the relatives of the victims and those wounded.

Military officials have said that there were no operations being conducted in the immediate area around the time of the pre-dawn killings. Helicopter noises that villagers heard could have been Medevac choppers called in to evacuate five Afghan civilians injured in the shootings, the official said.

Three of the injured who were flown to Kandahar Air Field were under 10, the official said. It was the second time that one of the children had been treated at the air field for a gunshot wound, the official said.

The legal expert said charges were still being decided and that the location for any trial had not yet been determined. If the suspect is brought to trial, it is possible that Afghan witnesses and victims would be flown to the United States to participate, he said.

He declined to disclose details about the investigation, which is being conducted by the Army Criminal Investigation Division.

Army Brig. Gen. Lewis Boone, director of public affairs for the U.S.-led coalition and American forces in Afghanistan, called the shooting spree a “terrible and horrendous act,” but said the U.S. military could not jeopardize the case by disclosing details of the investigation.

“I cannot over emphasize enough how important it is in the U.S. judicial system that the facts of the case, the evidence and the circumstances are safeguarded to ensure proper judicial process,” Boone said. “Whether you are an Afghan or an American, I think you’ll agree that the most important thing at the end of the day is that justice be done.”

In Washington, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States said Sunday that he believes the alleged shooter will be brought to justice.

But Eklil Hakimi indicated that relations between the two nations have been frayed by the shootings and violent protests across Afghanistan that broke out after Qurans were burned at a U.S. military base. The two nations also are engaged in tense negotiations on a strategic partnership agreement that will govern the U.S. footprint in the country after most combat forces pull out by the end of 2014.

The ambassador told CNN's “State of the Union” that Afghanistan was working to define its relationship with the U.S. for the years to come, but acknowledged that “down the road, it's a bumpy road.”

An Afghan protester gestures towards a US soldier in front of the US base of Bagram during an anti US demonstration in Bagram north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012. More than 2,000 angry Afghans, some firing guns in the air, protested on Tuesday against the improper disposal and burning of Qurans and other Islamic religious materials at an American air base in Bagram north of Kabul.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. apologized Tuesday for the burning of Muslim holy books that had been pulled from the shelves of a detention center library adjoining a major base in eastern Afghanistan because they contained extremist messages or inscriptions.

The White House echoed military officials in saying the burning of Qurans and other Islamic reading material that had been tossed in a pile of garbage was an accident.

But more than 2,000 Afghans protested the incident outside the Bagram Air Base that stoked rising anti-foreign sentiment and fueled Afghan claims that foreign troops disrespect their culture and Islamic religion even as the Americans and other NATO forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014.

Demonstrators who gathered outside Bagram Air Field, one of the largest U.S. bases in Afghanistan, shouted, “Die, die, foreigners!” Some fired rifles into the air. Others threw rocks at the gate of the base and set tires on fire.

U.S. Gen. John Allen, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the books had been mistakenly given to troops to be burned at a garbage pit at Bagram, a sprawling U.S. military base north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

“It was not a decision that was made because they were religious materials,” Allen said. “It was a mistake. It was an error. The moment we found out about it we immediately stopped and we intervened.”

The Quran is the most sacred object in the daily lives of Muslims and burning it is considered an offense against God. The Quran is so important in the faith that Islamic teaching spells out how it should be handled, including directing anyone who touches it to be in a state of ritual purity. Muslims can only dispose of Qurans in very specific ways, including burning or burying those that have been damaged or corrupted to prevent God’s word from being defiled.

A Western military official with knowledge of the incident said it appeared that the Qurans and other Islamic readings in the library were being used to fuel extremism, and that detainees at Parwan Detention Facility, which adjoins Bagram, were writing on the documents to exchange extremist messages. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

The military official said that several hundred Islamic publications, including Qurans, were removed from the library. Some of the publications had extremist content; others had extremist messages written on their pages by detainees, the official said. The official said the documents were charred and burnt, but none of them were destroyed.

“We will look into the reason those materials were gathered,” Allen said. “We will look into the manner in which the decision was made to dispose of them in this manner.”

Allen issued a new directive ordering all coalition forces in Afghanistan to complete training in the proper handling of religious materials no later than March 3. The training will include the identification of religious materials, their significance, correct handling and storage, he said.

The White House also apologized, with press secretary Jay Carney saying it was a “deeply unfortunate incident” that doesn’t reflect the respect the U.S. military has for the religious practices of the Afghan people. Carney did not address details about what occurred.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta added his voice, saying he disapproved of the conduct. He promised to review the results of the coalition’s investigation to ensure that all steps are taken to prevent it from happening again.

In a statement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the incident and appointed a delegation to investigate. He said initial reports were that four Qurans were burned.

Early Tuesday, as word of the incident spread, about 100 demonstrators gathered outside the base in Parwan province. As the crowd grew, so did the outrage.

One protester, Mohammad Hakim, said if U.S. forces can’t bring peace to Afghanistan, they should go home.

“They should leave Afghanistan rather than disrespecting our religion, our faith,” Hakim said. “They have to leave and if next time they disrespect our religion, we will defend our holy Quran, religion and faith until the last drop of blood has left in our body.”

Ahmad Zaki Zahed, chief of the provincial council, said U.S. military officials took him to a burn pit on the base where 60 to 70 books, including Qurans, were recovered. The books were used by detainees once incarcerated at the base, he said.

“Some were all burned. Some were half-burned,” Zahed said, adding that he did not know exactly how many Qurans had been burned.

Zahed said five Afghans working at the pit told him that the religious books were in the garbage that two soldiers with the U.S.-led coalition transported to the pit in a truck Monday night. When they realized the books were in the trash, the laborers quickly worked to recover them, he said.

“The laborers there showed me how their fingers were burned when they took the books out of the fire,” he said.Afghan Army Gen. Abdul Jalil Rahimi, the commander of a military coordination office in the province, said he and other officials met with protesters, tribal elders and clerics to try to calm their emotional response. “The protesters were very angry and didn’t want to end their protest,” he said.

Later, however, the protesters ended the rally and said they would send 20 representatives from the group to Kabul to talk with Afghan parliamentarians and demanded a meeting with Karzai, Rahimi said.

The governor’s office in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan called the incident a “shameful move by some stupid individuals.”

Zia Ul Rahman, deputy provincial police chief, said between 2,000 and 2,500 protesters demonstrated at the base.

“The people are very angry. The mood is very negative,” Rahman said while the rally was going on. “Some are firing hunting guns in the air, but there have been no casualties.”

Police said a similar protest on Tuesday just east of Kabul ended peacefully.

In April 2011, Afghans protesting the burning of a Quran by a Florida pastor turned deadly when gunmen in the crowd stormed a U.N. compound in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and killed three staffers and four Nepalese guards.

Also on Tuesday, NATO said four NATO service members were killed in southern Afghanistan — three in a roadside bombing and one in a non-battle related injury. The international military coalition did not give any other details about their deaths. So far this year, 47 NATO service members have been killed in Afghanistan.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, meets with delegates from an Afghan womenÂ’s civil society during an international conference on the future of Afghanistan, in Bonn, Germany, Monday, Dec. 5, 2011. Representatives of more than 90 countries and organizations are gathering to discuss the future of Afghanistan after the eventual withdrawal of foreign military forces.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BONN, Germany — Afghanistan will need the financial support of other countries for at least another decade beyond the 2014 departure of foreign troops, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Monday at an international conference.

But the conference on the future of Afghanistan in Bonn was overshadowed by a public display of bad blood between the United States and Pakistan, the two nations with the greatest stake and say in making Afghanistan safe and solvent.

Pakistan boycotted the meeting to protest an apparently errant U.S. air strike last month that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the rough border with Afghanistan. The strike furthered the perception in Pakistan that NATO and the U.S. are its true enemies, not the Taliban militants that operate on both sides of the border.

Pakistan is seen as instrumental to ending the insurgency in Afghanistan because of its links to militant groups and its unwillingness, from the NATO perspective, to drive insurgents from safe havens on its soil where they regroup and rearm.

During the one-day conference, about 100 nations and international organizations jointly pledged political and financial long-term support for war-torn Afghanistan to prevent it from falling back into chaos or becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

“Together we have spent blood and treasure in fighting terrorism,” Karzai said. “Your continued solidarity, your commitment and support will be crucial so that we can consolidate our gains and continue to address the challenges that remain.”

Donor nations did not commit to specific figures but pledged that economic and other advances in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban government in 2001 should be safeguarded with continued funding.

The United States announced it would free more than $650 million in support for small community-based development projects in Afghanistan, frozen because of financial irregularities in Afghanistan’s key Kabul Bank.

Afghanistan estimates it will need roughly $10 billion in 2015 and onward, slightly less than half the country’s annual gross national product, to pay for its security forces which are slated to increase to 352,000 personnel by the end of 2014.

Organizer Germany and the United States had once hoped this week’s conference would showcase progress toward a political settlement between Afghanistan and the Taliban-led insurgency that 10 years of fighting by international forces has failed to dislodge. Instead, it became a status report on halting progress on other fronts and a glaring reminder that neither the Taliban nor Pakistan is ready to sign up to the international agenda for Afghanistan.

Participating nations pledged their support for an inclusive Afghan-led reconciliation process on condition that any outcome must reject violence, terrorism and endorse the Afghan constitution and its guarantee of human rights.

A suicide attacker with a bomb in his turban posed as a Taliban peace envoy and assassinated a former Afghan president who for the past year headed a government council seeking a political settlement with the insurgents.

Tuesday’s attack, carried out in former President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Kabul home, dealt a harsh blow to attempts at ending a decade of war. The killing of Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik and one of the wise old men of Afghan politics, will blunt efforts to keep in check the regional and ethnic rivalries that help feed the insurgency.

President Hamid Karzai cut short a visit to the United Nations and called on Afghans to remain unified in the face of Rabbani’s “martyrdom.”

The attack came days after a daytime assault by insurgents on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters that deepened a sense of insecurity in the capital.

NATO said in a statement that two suicide bombers were involved in the attack on Rabbani, both of them men who had feigned a desire to reconcile with the government. It was unclear if a second bomber was able to detonate his explosives.

Afghan officials, however, insisted there was only one attacker. Four men were wounded, including a key presidential adviser, said Mohammad Zahir, the head of criminal investigations for the Kabul police. Initial reports had four bodyguards killed but Zahir said those were incorrect.

Close friends of Rabbani said that the former president returned from a trip to Iran to meet with a man who had been described as a high-ranking Taliban contact. The visitor, a young man, was shown into the house by two of Rabbani’s associates at the Afghan High Peace Council, who insisted that he did not need to be fully searched, said a friend who spoke anonymously because he was not a spokesman.

When Rabbani appeared, the man shook the former president’s hand and bowed as a sign of respect, said Fazel Karim Aimaq, a former lawmaker from Kunduz province and friend of Rabbani.

“Then his turban exploded,” Aimaq said. The blast broke windows in Rabbani’s home and shook nearby houses.

As the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, Rabbani sought a political deal with the Taliban — with U.S. blessing — and he will be hard to replace soon. His death could unleash a well of resentment among some senior Northern Alliance members, who accuse Karzai of colluding with the Taliban.

Already Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities have begun to rearm in the face of negotiations with the Taliban, who are mostly ethnic Pashtuns, as is Karzai. Rabbani’s killing is likely to accelerate that process and lay the foundation for a possible civil war once U.S. combat troops leave the country or take on support roles by the end of 2014.

President Barack Obama said the killing will not deter the U.S. and Afghanistan from helping that country’s people live freely. He said the former president’s death is tragic because he was a man who cared deeply about Afghanistan.

In this Sept. 27, 2006, file photo, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan smiles in Tampa, Fla. Infuriated that Washington met secretly at least three times with a personal emissary of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Afghan government intentionally leaked details of the clandestine meetings, scuttling the talks and sending the Taliban intermediary into hiding.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — Direct U.S. talks with the Taliban had evolved to a substantive negotiation before Afghan officials, nervous that the secret and independent talks would undercut President Hamid Karzai, scuttled them, Afghan and U.S. officials told The Associated Press.

Featured prominently in the talks was the whereabouts and eventual release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, who was captured more than two years ago in eastern Afghanistan, according to a senior Western diplomat in the region and a childhood friend of the Taliban negotiator, Tayyab Aga.

The U.S. negotiators asked Aga what could be done to gain Bergdahl’s release. The discussion did not get into specifics but Aga discussed the release of Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and in Afghanistan at Bagram Air Field.

Published reports about the clandestine meetings ended the talks abruptly, and sent Aga into hiding.
Collapse of the direct talks between Aga and U.S. officials probably spoiled the best chance yet at reaching Mullah Mohammed Omar, considered the linchpin to ending the Taliban fight against the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan. The contacts were preliminary but had begun to bear fruit, Afghan and U.S. officials said.

Perhaps most importantly they offered the tantalizing prospect of a brokered agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban — one that would allow the larger reconciliation of the Taliban into Afghanistan political life to move forward. The United States has not committed to any such deal, but the Taliban wants security assurances from Washington.

The U.S. acknowledged the meetings after Karzai, who apparently fears being sidelined by U.S.-Taliban talks, confirmed published accounts about them in June, but has never publicly detailed the content, format or participants.

At the time of the leak, Washington had already offered small concessions as “confidence-building measures,” a former senior U.S. official said. They were aimed at developing a rapport and moving talks forward, said a current U.S. official on condition he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.

The concessions included treating the Taliban and al-Qaida differently under international sanctions. The Taliban had argued that while al-Qaida is focused on worldwide jihad against the West, Taliban militants have focused on Afghanistan and have shown little interest in attacking targets abroad.

As the Afghan war slides into its 10th year and Washington plans to withdraw its combat forces by the end of 2014, a negotiated settlement between the Karzai government and the Taliban has become a stated goal for the United States. It is the centerpiece of efforts by Marc Grossman, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Karzai has launched a separate peace outreach, with the High Peace Council representing numerous political factions.

A month ago, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry and Pakistan’s Army chief of staff Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani met for a marathon eight hours in a Gulf country. Peace negotiations with Afghanistan’s insurgents featured prominently, said both Pakistani and U.S. officials who would not be identified by name because of the secret nature of the meeting.

A U.S. official familiar with the talks said Kayani made a pitch during his marathon meeting with Kerry that Pakistan take on a far larger role in Afghanistan peacemaking. The United States considers Pakistan an essential part of an eventual deal, but neither the U.S. nor Pakistan trusts the other’s motives in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, an unexpected consequence of attempts to find peace with the Taliban has been the rearming of the so-called Northern Alliance, that represents Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities and who were partnered with the coalition at the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom to topple the Taliban regime.

For the warlords that make up the Northern Alliance, Martine van Bijlert, co-director and co-founder of the Afghan Analyst Network in the capital, Kabul, talk of peace threatens their survival.

Warlords-cum-government ministers and vice presidents are watching attempts at finding a peaceful end to the war with trepidation, each wondering “what if it unravels, who is going to come after me? Will I be the weakest in the room? They are feeling very vulnerable,” van Bijlert said.

Water mixed with blood pours in a steady stream following a suicide bomb attack at the entrance to a police station in Kabul, Afghanistan on Saturday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that Afghanistan and the United States are engaged in peace talks with the Taliban, even as suicide bombers stormed a police station near the presidential palace, killing at least two police officers.

The brazen attack in the heart of Kabul’s government district provided a sharp counterpoint to Karzai’s announcement that the U.S. and Afghan government are in talks with the Taliban, the first official confirmation of such discussions. The violence also underscored the difficulty facing possible negotiated settlement to the decade-long war.

Men dressed in Afghan army uniforms stormed the police station near the presidential palace and opened fire on officers as they tried to enter the building, said Mohammed Honayon, an eyewitness.

Kabul Police Chief Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi said two police officers had been killed and one injured.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack, saying three suicide bombers attacked the police training center.

The assault occurred shortly after Karzai, who is a strong proponent of peace discussions, announced during a speech at the presidential palace that his government and the U.S. have begun preliminary negotiations with the Taliban aimed at ending the conflict.

“In the course of this year, there have been peace talks with the Taliban and our own countrymen,” Karzai said. “Peace talks have started with them already and it is going well.

Foreign militaries, especially the United States of America, are going ahead with these negotiations.”

Karzai said some of the Taliban emissaries that have met with members of the peace council he set up were only representing themselves, while others were speaking for the
broader movement.

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama slipped into Afghanistan Tuesday night on the anniversary of the killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and signed an agreement cementing U.S. commitment to the nation after American combat troops leave.

Alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama declared, “Together, we’re now committed to replacing war with peace.”

The partnership spells out the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan beyond 2014, covering security, economics and governance. The deal is limited in scope and essentially gives both sides political cover: Afghanistan is guaranteed its sovereignty and promised it won’t be abandoned, while the U.S. gets to end its combat mission in the long and unpopular war but keep a foothold in the country.

The deal does not commit the United States to any specific troop presence or spending. But it does allow the U.S. to potentially keep troops in Afghanistan after the war ends for two specific purposes: continued training of Afghan forces and targeted operations against al-Qaida. The terror group is present in neighboring Pakistan but has only a nominal presence inside Afghanistan.

He flew to the site of America’s longest war not only as commander in chief but also as an incumbent president in the early stages of a tough re-election campaign. Nor were the two roles completely distinct.
His presence was a reminder that since taking office in 2009, Obama has ended the war in Iraq and moved to create an orderly end for the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan.

In the political realm, he and Vice President Joe Biden have marked the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death by questioning whether Republican challenger Mitt Romney would have ordered the daring raid that penetrated the terrorist leader’s Pakistan hide-out. Republicans are accusing the president of politicizing the event, and Romney is insisting that he would indeed have ordered U.S. forces into action.

At a signing ceremony in Kabul with Afghan President Karzai, Obama said the agreement paves the way for “’a future of peace” while allowing the United States to “wind down this war.”

Karzai said his countrymen “will never forget” the help of U.S. forces over the past decade. He said the partnership agreement shows the United States and Afghanistan will continue to fight terrorism together.

Obama was greeted upon arrival at Bagram Air Field by Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Obama then flew by helicopter to the presidential palace in Kabul, where he was to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and sign the strategic partnership.

Officials have previously said as many as 20,000 U.S. troops may remain after the combat mission ends, but that still must still be negotiated.

The United States does promise to seek money from Congress every year to support Afghanistan.

Obama was to be on the ground for about seven hours in Afghanistan, where the United States has been engaged in war for more than a decade following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The trip carries major symbolic significance for a president seeking a second term and allows him to showcase what the White House considers the fruit of Obama’s refocused war effort: the demise of bin Laden.

Air Force One touched down late at night local time at Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base here.

Media traveling with Obama on the 13-plus-hour flight had to agree to keep it secret until Obama had safely finished a helicopter flight to the nation’s capital, Kabul, where Taliban insurgents still launch lethal attacks.

Obama is joining Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the agreement that will broadly govern the U.S. role in Afghanistan after the American combat mission stops at the end of 2014 — 13 years after it began.

The president’s Tuesday night address was coming exactly one year after special forces, on his order, began the raid that led to the killing of bin Laden in Pakistan.

Since then, ties between the United States and Afghanistan have been tested anew by the burning of Muslim holy books at a U.S. base and the massacre of 17 civilians, including children, allegedly by an American soldier.

Obama’s overarching message will be that the war is ending on his watch but the U.S. commitment to its ally is not.

Politics, too, set the tone for what the White House hoped would be a positive message and image for Obama: the commander in chief setting a framework to end the war while reassuring Afghanistan, on its soil, it will not be abandoned.

Aides said the anniversary of bin Laden’s killing was not a focus of the trip. But they do not mind that Obama’s mission will serve as a reminder, six months before Election Day.

More than 1,800 U.S. forces have been killed and 15,700 more have been wounded in Afghanistan. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined have cost almost $1.3 trillion. And public support for keeping troops in Afghanistan seems lower than ever.

Obama has gone twice before to Afghanistan as president, most recently in December 2010, and once to Iraq in 2009. All such trips, no matter how carefully planned, carry the weight and the risks of considerable security challenges. Just last month, the Taliban began near-simultaneous assaults on embassies, government buildings and NATO bases in Kabul.

Still, it would have been unusual for Obama to sign the “strategic partnership” agreement without Karzai at his side.

The deal is essential for locking in America’s commitment and Afghan’s sovereignty when the post-war period comes.

Negotiations have dragged as Afghan officials have demanded specific assurances, financial and otherwise.

Both sides have scrambled to get a deal before the NATO conference in Chicago later this month. Negotiators seemed to clear the way for Obama and Karzai by finding agreement over the conduct of night raids and authority over detainees.

The president was to travel back from Kabul to the Bagram base to spend some time with troops.

He was then to give his speech in a straight-to-camera delivery reminiscent of an Oval Office address, before flying back to the U.S. He is expected back in Washington on Wednesday afternoon.

The United States has 88,000 troops in Afghanistan. An additional 40,000 in coalition forces remain from other nations.

Obama has already declared that NATO forces will hand over the lead combat role to Afghanistan in 2013 as the U.S. and its allies work to get out by the end of 2014.

One important unsettled issue, however, is how many U.S. troops may remain after that.

U.S. officials are eying a residual force of perhaps 20,000, many in support roles for the Afghan armed forces, and some U.S. special forces for counterterror missions. The size and scope of that U.S. force — if one can be agreed upon on at all, given the public moods and political factors in both nations — will probably have to be worked out later in a separate agreement.

Support for keeping American troops in Afghanistan is dropping all along the political spectrum, a new Pew Research poll says. And just 38 percent of people say the military effort is going well, down from 51 percent only a month ago.

Overall, polling shows, Obama gets favorable marks compared to Romney in handling terrorism, and the president’s public approval for his handling of the Afghan war has hovered around 50 percent of late.

The trip allows Obama to hold forth as commander in chief in the same week he plans to launch his official campaign travel with rallies in Virginia and Ohio.

“We’ve spent the last three-and-a-half years cleaning up after other folks’ messes,” Obama said at a fundraiser last weekend. “The war in Iraq is over. We’re transitioning in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida is on the ropes. We’ve done what we said we’d do.”

Printed on Wednesday, May 2, 2012 as: Obama flies to Afghanistan to sign strategic pact