Anti-US anger in Afghanistan overshadows Karzai trip to Washington
KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai heads to the United States in a visit that threatens to be overshadowed by the most violent anti-US protests to rock Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban and new allegations of prisoner abuse by US soldiers.
Since helping to bring down the extremist Islamic regime in 2001, Washington has remained Karzai's biggest supporter, both in terms of reconstruction aid and its military presence, with 18,000 troops on the ground here.
But the relationship is showing signs of strain after 15 people were killed in anti-US protests last week sparked by an erroneous report of copies of the Koran being desecrated by the US military.
The trip will see Karzai meeting President George W. Bush on Monday, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the new head of the World Bank and former Bush administration hawk Paul Wolfowitz.
During his four-day trip, the president will also meet members of Congress, whose job it is to approve the multi-billion dollar packages of military and economic aid that are stopping Afghanistan from becoming a failed state.
The bill currently runs to some 15 billion dollars a year, 80 percent of it to cover military expenses.
Meeting for the first time since Karzai was reelected Afghan president in October, the two are expected to focus on the ongoing war on terror and Afghanistan's faltering progress, Bush's spokesman Scott McClellan said.
"This will be an opportunity for the two leaders to discuss the progress in the global war on terrorism, the achievements of the Afghan people in building democracy and our ongoing cooperation on a range of bilateral, regional and international issues," McClellan said ahead of the trip.
And although last week's anti-US protests, which saw hundreds on the streets in cities across Afghanistan, were sparked by a Newsweek report that was later retracted, further allegations Friday threatened to ignite popular anger.
The latest report quoted a leaked US Army criminal investigation as saying two detainees in US military custody in Afghanistan in 2002 were tortured to death in a pattern of abuse that went well beyond their deaths.
The nearly 2,000 page Bagram file on prisoner abuse read like a "narrative counterpart to the digital images from Abu Ghraib," the prison at the centre of an abuse scandal in Iraq, the New York Times reported.
During the trip, Karzai is also expected to ask Washington to seal a strategic long term partnership with Afghanistan. He raised the issue last month, but details of what such a relationship would mean remain sketchy.
While unclear, the concept still touches raw nerves in Afghanistan, where an opposition wary of the continued American presence in the country has accused Karzai of wanting to install permanent US military bases.
Observers deem an ongoing US military presence essential to Afghanistan's fragile stability, which after more than two decades of war and civil unrest is threatened by the considerable power and influence of regional warlords, the slow pace of disarmament, a massive illicit narcotics industry and widespread anti-government fervour.
The south and east of the country, near the mountainous and lawless border with Pakistan, remains the heartland of the anti-Karzai camp, where Taliban remnants and their Al-Qaeda allies hold out.
The areas remain tense and attacks have been reported on a regular basis since the end of a harsh winter, claiming the lives of more than 250 people.
Various factors have served to drive a wedge between Afghans and the US in recent months.
Allegations of repeated and frequent human rights abuses by US forces in Afghanistan, as denounced by the United Nations, along with the since-retracted claims of desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo bay have stoked anti-Americanism.
Analysts see the protests as showing the frustration of a large portion of the Afghan population who consider the US-led reconstruction effort to be moving too slowly and unevenly.
"The Americans continue to put the emphasis on the war on terror, but for many Afghans, everyday problems, financial problems, are not taken into account," said a member of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Kabul.
And despite Karzai himself saying that US forces have made mistakes in Afghanistan, the president knows he has few other options.
"Without them, and without the international community, Afghanistan will immediately go back to chaos," he said earlier this month.