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Bush, Afghan Leader Meet in Wake of Protests

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush welcomes Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, to the White House today. Their talks coincide with a noticeable cooling in US-Afghan relations. An American diplomat has criticized Karzai for being ineffective in curtailing the country's huge heroin trade. Karzai, for his part, wants his government to take custody of all Afghan prisoners and exercise greater control over US military operations in his country. And in a speech yesterday at Boston University's commencement, Karzai criticized the US and the international community for failing to get involved in Afghanistan earlier.

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): For many years before September 2001, terrorism that came to Afghanistan on the heels of invasion, interference and violence took the lives of thousands of our people. Regrettably, the world, the United States and other countries that had the power and, hence, the responsibility, did not see it compatible with their national interests to address the plight of the Afghan people then.

MONTAGNE: Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai. James Dobbins is director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center and he joins me now.

Good morning.

Mr. JAMES DOBBINS (RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: How severe is the current strain in the US-Afghanistan relations?

Mr. DOBBINS: I don't actually think it's that severe. I think that the US still values Hamid Karzai and recognizes that he's an irreplaceable leader and one that's been very friendly to the United States and very cooperative, and Karzai clearly still recognizes his dependence on the United States and needs American assistance. I think that we're coming up against some difficult problems. There's a certain amount of buck passing going on here back and forth as to who's responsible, but I don't think there'll be any difficulty at the level of the two presidents at forging agreements on these issues.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about the question of Afghanistan taking custody of detainees and control over military operations. Well, for one thing, is the country capable of it?

Mr. DOBBINS: Probably not. I mean, I think the United States would probably be pleased if Afghanistan were able to take over responsibility for the bulk of the prisoners. There may be a small number of them that the US would prefer to keep custody of, but I'm sure the bulk of them, they would prefer to have the Afghans take over and I'm sure that they're prepared to agree that the Afghans should do that as soon as they become capable of doing so and begin a process of making such a transition.

MONTAGNE: Which doesn't necessarily mean now.

Mr. DOBBINS: Well, it could mean some now, some later.

MONTAGNE: What--let's talk about the poppy eradication question. It's been an issue for a couple of years. Why has the US-financed program been so ineffective?

Mr. DOBBINS: Well, for one thing because it didn't have any finance until relatively recently. For the first couple of years after the US chased the Taliban out and Karzai and his government were installed, we paid virtually no attention to the issue. We left it to the British, who made some valiant but small-scale efforts to address the problem. The Pentagon refused to allow US forces to be used in counternarcotics in any way. That's begun to change. We've begun to take it more seriously. We've begun to provide large-scale funding, but the funding was held up in this supplemental package before the Hill and I don't think it was voted until two or three weeks ago, so it's obviously not been able to have any impact on the ground. And in the interim, drug production has become by far the largest source of national income in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Just very briefly, what else might President Bush be discussing with President Karzai today?

Mr. DOBBINS: Well, I think that the US is very keen that Afghanistan should progress toward legislative elections later this year. They had presidential elections last year but they still have an elected president and no legislature. And if you're going to have a democratic government, you're going to need a legislature as well. So I think he'll be--and Karzai wants to proceed. Again, it's a practical problem of when it can be adequately organized.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Mr. DOBBINS: It's a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: James Dobbins is the director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.