WASHINGTON – Looking to strengthen U.S.-Afghanistan relations, Afghan President Hamid Karzai (search) will meet with President Bush on Monday, at which time he plans to ask for stronger coordination between U.S. troops and the Afghan government and to demand punishment for U.S. soldiers accused of abuse at U.S. detention facilities.
"I am here to ask President Bush for a longer-term relationship with Afghanistan, for a strategic partnership with Afghanistan. That will involve economic support, military support and security assistance," Karzai told FOX News on Sunday.
Expressing gratitude for U.S. efforts to rid the nation of Taliban (search) radicals and increase security across the long-ravaged country, Karzai said he wants Afghan prisoners to be returned to Afghan prisons from U.S. detention centers and greater consultation before military operations take place on the ground in Afghanistan.
"Especially where homes are concerned, where people are concerned, where knocking on people's doors are concerned," consultation must occur beforehand, he said.
Karzai's four-day visit to the United States is his first since he was inaugurated in December as his nation's first democratically elected president. While 16,700 U.S. troops are stationed in his country, resentment among the Muslim Afghans toward U.S. soldiers is high following a Newsweek article that said U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, had flushed a Koran down the toilet, desecrating the Islamic holy book.
The story ignited protests across the Muslim world, including violence that resulted in 16 deaths in Afghanistan. Newsweek later retracted the story and issued an apology for not double-checking its one source on the story.
In its May 30 edition, the magazine reported that the International Committee of the Red Cross (search) had provided the Pentagon with confidential reports about U.S. personnel disrespecting or mishandling Korans at the detention facility in 2002 and 2003. But Defense Department spokesman Lawrence Di Rita told the magazine that commanders routinely followed up ICRC reports, including these, and could not substantiate them.
Karzai said the news article was equivalent to gossip and the news agency "neglected the basics of propriety and of journalism itself." He added that word has gotten back to Afghans that the article was wrong, but the destruction caused by the original report was not a reaction from people upset by the article.
"The looting of buildings, the burning of buildings that was not done by people who were protesting the documents, that was done by gangs who were against Afghanistan ... the guys that don't want our country to be good and be on its own feet," he said.
Karzai said even though individuals continue to oppose the new Afghan government, they are not getting their guidance on the ground from terror leader Usama bin Laden (search). Karzai said he doesn't know where bin Laden is, but he knows where he is not.
"I can say that he is not in Afghanistan. If he were, we would catch him. As to where he exactly is, it is difficult to say. I cannot make a guess," he said, adding that it is easy for one man to hide among many.
When asked how he walks the line between embracing the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan without alienating citizens who consider him a puppet of the U.S. government, Karzai responded that people in his country know that following democratic ambitions is the only road to success.
"No Afghan is a puppet, you know. Afghans are very independent people. They understand. The Afghan people, perhaps, are among the most freedom lovers of all the people in the world, but for the Afghan people, the relationship with the United States is in a necessarily different context — in the context of the future stability of Afghanistan, the future well-being of the Afghan people and the prevention of intervention from outside into Afghanistan," he said.
The Afghan president agreed that his country's future well-being will also in part rely on eradicating the poppy crops that are used to make opium. Last year, more than a half million acres of land were dedicated to growing poppies, producing about 5,000 metric tons of opium. Afghanistan is the biggest poppy-producing nation in the world.
Karzai said a U.N. document recently released on Afghanistan's poppy cultivation shows a decrease in most provinces where the flower is grown and his nation continues its eradication program.
"Let's hope that we will build on that and that eventually in five to six years we will completely eradicate poppies," he said, adding that to be successful, the international community must help present options for alternative revenues for Afghan farmers.
"People in Afghanistan in the past 30 years destroyed their pomegranate orchards, their vineyards to replace them with poppies. Imagine the desperation. Now that the country is going back toward stability, prosperity, there is no need for poppies. People will go to alternative livelihoods if they are given an opportunity, which they have shown this year," he said.