Bush rules out Afghan command over US troops

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The Independent Online

George Bush served notice that US forces in Afghanistan would remain under American control, despite renewed allegations of prisoner abuse by US troops.

President Bush also made clear that Washington would not be pressured into an early repatriation of all Afghan detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba.

Speaking after talks with the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, Mr Bush said the US and Kabul would "co-operate and consult" over operations in Afghanistan, where the Americans have been searching since late 2001 for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qa'ida commanders. But, he declared: "Of course our troops will respond to US commanders."

The hour-long White House meeting came at an awkward juncture in relations, soured by the recent New York Times reports of the killing by US troops of two Afghan detainees at Bagram air base in 2002, and by violence triggered by Newsweek's claim - later retracted - that a Koran had been flushed down a lavatory at Guantanamo Bay.

For his part, Mr Karzai has been fending off complaints by the US that he has not been sufficiently tough in eradicating Afghan poppy cultivation - the source of much of the heroin in Europe and the US. The Afghan leader said cultivation would be down 20 to 30 per cent in 2005. "If this continues, there will be no poppies in Afghanistan in five or six years."Mr Karzai also said he needed help to encourage farmers to switch to other crops, such as pomegranates and melons.

Above all, Mr Karzai, in his first visit to the White House since being elected President in October last year, was keen to show he is not a US "puppet", whose sway barely extends beyond the capital. Repeatedly, Mr Bush implied that the two countries were partners.

On the issue of prison abuse, Mr Karzai insisted those responsible must be brought to justice, but he was careful to distinguish between rogue individuals and the nation. He was sad about what had happened, but "it does not represent the American people".

Symbolically, the two men signed a "memorandum of understanding" on the "strategic partnership" between Washington and Kabul. Mr Bush insisted Afghan democracy was flourishing, and that he had "great faith" in its future.

But on the matters of substance he gave no real ground. Mr Bush said that Afghan prisoners held by the US at Guantanamo Bay and other detention centres abroad would continue to be returned slowly to their home countries. But he provided no timetable. "We will do this over time, we have to make sure the facilities are there to feed them, house them and guard them," he said.

On opium production, Mr Bush left no doubt that he expected more to be done. "I made it very clear [to President Karzai] that we have got to work together to eradicate the poppy crop."