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Secretary of State John Kerry Makes Trip to Afghanistan to Defuse Tensions

March 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: A recent chill in U.S.-Afghan relations showed signs of a slight spring thaw today. It came as America’s top diplomat sat down with Afghanistan’s leader to hash out differences.

Friendship was today’s watchword, as Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced visit to Kabul, meeting with President Hamid Karzai and smoothing over U.S.-Afghan tensions at a joint news conference.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY, United States: I appreciate enormously our friendship. And I know that you share with me a sense that this next year could well be one of the most important in the modern history of Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: The show of unity followed new flare-ups as the U.S. winds down its combat mission there.

After a deadly bombing this month, Karzai was quoted as saying the U.S. colluded with the Taliban to destabilize his country and to justify a continued U.S. presence beyond the Dec. 2014 pullout date. Today, though, he denied he had made that charge.

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI, Afghanistan: The media took that to say that I said there is a collusion. I never used the word collusion between the Taliban and the U.S. Those were not my words. Those were used, picked up by the media.

GWEN IFILL: Kerry in turn said he had reached an understanding with Karzai on the matter.

JOHN KERRY: We’re on the same page. I don’t think there’s any disagreement between us. And I’m very, very comfortable with the president’s explanation.

GWEN IFILL: There was progress too on meeting another Karzai demand: the return of Afghan prisons to Afghan control.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, ISAF Commander: This ceremony to transfer the detention facility is important and it’s meaningful.

GWEN IFILL: Today, U.S. General Joseph Dunford formally handed over the last jail under American control, Parwan prison near Bagram Air Base outside Kabul.

All in all, said Karzai, today was a very good day. Kerry agreed. But this wasn’t his only challenge in the region this week. The freshly minted secretary of state arrived in Kabul from Baghdad, where he pressed U.S. claims that Iran is shipping weapons to Syria through Iraqi airspace.

JOHN KERRY: Anything that supports President Assad is problematic.

GWEN IFILL: Kerry said Sunday that he and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had a very spirited discussion on the issue.

JOHN KERRY: I also made it clear to him that there are members of Congress and people in America who increasingly are watching what Iraq is doing and wondering how it is that a partner in the efforts for democracy and a partner for whom Americans feel they have tried so hard to be helpful, how that country can be, in fact, doing something that makes it more difficult to achieve our common goals.

GWEN IFILL: For Kerry, stopping the violence in Syria after two years and 70,000 people killed will be another top diplomatic priority. So will the years-long effort to block Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. To date, both problems have proved intractable.

At the same time, President Obama’s trip to the Middle East last week has also put new focus on trying to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The trip through the region has provided Kerry with a first-hand introduction to a daunting agenda, and it is likely to be only the first of many such trips to come.