KABUL, Afghanistan — Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., arrived in Kabul on Tuesday for another tough diplomatic mission amid newly strained relations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Washington that have undercut U.S. political support for the nine-year-old war.
Ten months after he played a pivotal role in persuading Karzai to agree to a runoff after a corruption-plagued presidential vote, Kerry returned to the Afghan capital with a firm new message: Karzai must allow the country's new anti-corruption departments to do their job.
"President Karzai and his government need to understand that there is no patience for endless support for something that doesn't meet higher standards with respect to governance," Kerry told a small group of reporters between meetings with the Afghan leader.
Kerry is seeking assurances from Karzai that he'll allow the anti-corruption groups to make headway on one of the more thorny issues the two countries face.
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"I think that (in) the next days, the government of Afghanistan's response to anti-corruption efforts are a key test of its ability to regain the confidence of the people and provide the kind of governance that the American people are prepared to support," Kerry said.
His visit came on the heels of an hourlong phone call that President Barack Obama made to Karzai last week that included a discussion of their disagreement over the American-backed anti-corruption investigators.
Earlier this month, Karzai announced plans to impose more oversight on the Major Crimes Task Force and the Sensitive Investigative Unit after the groups orchestrated the arrest of a well-placed Karzai government leader.
Karzai aide Mohammed Zia Saleh, the top administrator at the country's National Security Council, was arrested late last month in a sting operation. Saleh is suspected of soliciting a bribe from an Afghan company that's being investigated for shipping billions of dollars in cash out of Afghanistan.
The FBI and British investigators have provided essential backing for the two groups, which are designed to tackle corruption in one of the world's most corrupt countries.
With the U.S.-backed investigators drawing closer to Karzai's inner circle, the Afghan president announced plans to revise regulations for the anti-corruption organizations.
Karzai accused the investigators of using rough tactics on suspects, and he vowed to bring the groups into line.
The president's response raised concerns in the Obama administration, however, that Karzai was trying to quash legitimate investigations and protect his allies.
Were Karzai to neuter the investigators, it almost would certainly undermine support for him in Washington, where billions of dollars in U.S. aid for Afghanistan already have been put on hold because of concerns about high-level corruption.
"This test is an important one for him and the government, and he knows that there are people on both sides of the aisle in Congress who are anxious about what's happening here," said Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Along with discussion of the corruption efforts, Karzai's office said the president pressed Kerry on the need to focus more attention on preventing Pakistan from providing shelter and support for anti-American insurgents who cross freely between the neighboring countries.
Karzai's office said the president also raised concerns about the conduct of NATO forces and singled out a recent video that showed Polish soldiers blowing up an abandoned Afghan home, as one Polish soldier put it, "for fun."
"Fighting terrorism without a clear definition of enemy and friend by pursuing it in the Afghan homes and villages rather than targeting its roots and bases of support cannot succeed," Karzai's office said.
Kerry's arrival in Kabul coincided with Karzai's official declaration that he's ordering the closure of the nation's polarizing private-security companies by year's end.
More than 50 registered private-security firms employ 26,000 people to protect NATO convoys on dangerous supply routes, provide security for embassies and run heavily guarded guesthouses across the country.
Some of the biggest companies have been accused of orchestrating attacks on the convoys in a ploy to secure lucrative contracts, and a recent congressional investigation suggested that NATO money was being secretly used to pay anti-American insurgents not to attack convoys.
In a decree issued Tuesday, Karzai called for the private armed guards to be absorbed into the Afghan security forces, which will be called on to assume responsibility for protecting the convoys. He carved out an exception that would allow diplomats and aid groups to continue using private security at their compounds as long as they didn't interact directly with the Afghan public.
Some analysts saw Karzai's decree as an attempt to put pressure on his Western allies in order to gain more leverage in the disagreement over the anti-corruption investigations.
If Karzai follows through with the compressed timeline to close the security companies, it could create significant new risks for NATO supply routes into Afghanistan.
The U.S. Embassy publicly questioned the wisdom of moving too quickly to shut the companies.
"We are concerned that any quick action to remove private security companies may have unintended consequences, including the possible delay of U.S. reconstruction and development assistance efforts," said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. "Private security companies are currently filling a gap to allow us to deliver reconstruction and development assistance that, at the end of the day, focuses on improving the lives of the Afghan people."
Afghan security forces, especially the police, are infused with problems. They've been accused of using checkpoints to shake down drivers and of getting high on drugs while on patrol.
NATO troops are spending billions of dollars to create Afghan security forces that are capable of fighting insurgents and protecting their country. Afghan soldiers and police already are straining as they fight alongside NATO forces, however, and it's not clear that they're capable of adequately protecting the crucial military supply routes.
Kerry backed Karzai's plan — in principle — but said he didn't know whether the four-month deadline was too ambitious.
The senator's diplomatic mission to Afghanistan is a sensitive one. The Obama administration has had a strained relationship with Karzai that's required repeated repairs.
Last fall, Kerry played a central role in convincing Karzai to agree to a runoff in the country's presidential election. Karzai's challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, eventually dropped out after he accused Karzai of failing to implement political reforms that were needed to ensure that the runoff would be more transparent.
Amid a confusing debate over how many American troops Obama plans to call home next July, as he pledged to do last December, Kerry said that the U.S. strategy had made "enormous progress" this year.
"I understand the impatience, but impatience is not a strategy and impatience doesn't meet the security needs of our country," said Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran who went on to become a prominent opponent of that war. "If we have knowledge of things that we know are happening and the (Afghan) government doesn't respond to it, it's going to be very, very difficult for us to look American families in the eye and say: 'Hey, that's something worth dying for.' "
(Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this report from Kabul.)
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