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Secretary of State John Kerry is in Afghanistan today. He's there smoothing over the latest dispute with President Hamid Karzai. The trip was unannounced, and Kerry arrived at a big moment, just as the U.S. was formally handing over Bagram prison to Afghan authorities. The fate of detainees is one of many thorny issues complicating relations with the Karzai government, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Obama administration officials and many in Congress were furious with Karzai's latest rants about the U.S. But standing next to Kerry, someone he's known for years, the Afghan president sounded like the gracious host. He denied that he ever suggested the U.S. is colluding with the Taliban and says he only raises concerns about heavy-handed U.S. tactics when they obviously need to change.
PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: When I say something publicly to this effect, this is not meant to offend our allies, but to correct the situation. I'm responsible for the protection of the Afghan people.
KELEMEN: Since his latest outburst, the U.S. agreed to pull some special forces back from a small part of Wardak province, where villagers complain that Afghan forces working with U.S. troops committed numerous abuses. The province has been a gateway to Kabul for Taliban fighters.
The U.S. and Afghanistan have also resolved a longstanding dispute over Bagram prison. Secretary of State Kerry says today's prison handover was a sign that the U.S. is committed to making sure Afghanistan takes the lead in its security.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: As of today, we don't have prisons. Whatever is occurring here is under the control of the Afghan people, and the United States will cooperate with the government of Afghanistan. We're satisfied that our interests are protected.
KELEMEN: The U.S. is still holding some non-Afghan prisoners, and Kerry didn't elaborate on the arrangements made about those the U.S. fears still pose a danger. Karzai said only U.S. and Afghan officials will exchange views.
KARZAI: The United States will, through intelligence sharing in writing, inform the Afghan intelligence service of the information of the intelligence they have with regard to a particular person that is considered an enduring security threat.
KELEMEN: Much of their meeting was focused on bigger issues: next year's presidential election in Afghanistan, the U.S. troop pullout and Karzai's plans to visit Qatar, where the Taliban is opening an office. Kerry seemed to be stroking Karzai's ego as one way to keep all this on track.
KERRY: This next year could well be one of the most important in the modern history of Afghanistan. Mr. President, you, I think, stand on the brink of a remarkable legacy for having brought Afghanistan through an amazingly difficult time.
KELEMEN: He's reassuring Afghans that the U.S. is committed to Afghanistan's sovereignty and, as he put it, will not let al-Qaida or the Taliban shake that commitment. Kerry is encouraging the Taliban to renounce violence and enter into a peace process with the Karzai government. The Afghan president says it's in the Taliban's interest because, as he put it, Afghanistan is moving forward, though he struggled a bit with his metaphor.
KARZAI: A snowball is moving down the mountain, and whatever comes across it will strip it away. So the Taliban better - they must become a snowflake and join the snowball and have a better future in this country.
KELEMEN: It's not only the Taliban that needs to be part of the peace process, Karzai said, it's Pakistan as well. Secretary Kerry had hoped to visit Pakistan on this trip. But with that country in the midst of an election campaign, Kerry opted instead to meet quietly with Pakistan's army chief last night in Amman. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.