Kabul, Afghanstan Secretary of State John Kerry was sent to smooth U.S. relations with Afghan president Hamid Karzai and he appears to have done that for now.
During a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Karzai publicly thanked Kerry for being "one of the friends of Afghanistan" and denied making recent anti-American statements that endangered U.S. troops on the ground.
However, Secretary Kerry said that there were still a number of security issues and other concerns that two had yet to tackle during their almost two hour long meeting today. They agreed to meet again on Tuesday morning to discuss some of the complicated issues confronting the Afghan government as it tries to remain in control after most NATO forces leave at the end of 2014.
A key step in Afghanistan's transition to independence is, in the view of the U.S. government, reconciliation with the Taliban. The U.S. is pressing Karzai's government to talk with the Taliban in an effort to get that extremist group to break ties with al Qaeda and to recognize the rule of law including the rights of women.
Karzai announced that he will formally begin that peace process in the next few days and that his government has already begun informally speaking to the Taliban. Those negotiations will be brokered in Doha by the Qatari Emir. The United States has not directly spoken with the Taliban since the group cut off talks in March 2012. However, the U.S. is in contact through other governments who provide "indirect access" according to a Senior US official traveling with Kerry.
For those talks to succeed, Karzai said, the Pakistani government needs to be involved. While standing beside Kerry, Karzai said that neighboring Pakistan continues to harbor Taliban militants who stage attacks from across the border.
Aides to Secretary Kerry say that he will soon visit Pakistan to discuss these issues. During a private dinner held in Amman, Jordan the night before his trip to Kabul, Kerry pushed Pakistani General Kayani - who runs the Pakistani military - to crack down on terrorist havens.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the transition to Afghan control of its own security and political system "isn't going to be a smooth process at all times." The two countries are trying to negotiate how to help the Afghan government survive politically and economically after the withdrawal of NATO forces. The U.S. wants to insure that al Qaeda does not once again establish a base inside the country. President Obama has not announced the number of U.S. troops that will be remaining in Afghanistan after the majority of NATO forces leave in 2014.
Today, the U.S did reluctantly transfer control of its last U.S. detention facility to Afghan control. It is a controversial measure that may help build public confidence in President Karzai. The U.S. previously delayed the transfer out of fear that the insurgents held within it would be released and potentially threaten the stability of the Afghan government. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the Afghanis will work with US authorities to screen those prisoners with ties to Al Qaeda or other extremists before they are released.
While this was John Kerry's first trip to Afghanistan as Secretary of State, he has a long-standing relationship with Hamid Karzai that he developed while still a senator.