KABUL – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met again Tuesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a day after they put on a show of unity as they tried to end recent bickering over anti-American comments made by the Afghan leader.
Kerry also met Tuesday at the American Embassy in Kabul with participants in a U.S.-backed women's entrepreneurship program. He heard a succession of concerns from businesswomen fearful of what the 2014 transition will mean for not only for women and girls but for Afghanistan's commerce in general.
Many advocates for women's rights worry that the departure of international troops will lead to a deterioration in conditions for women, who were denied basic rights such as education under Taliban rule.
"After the transition happens, we are hoping for the same attention" as we get now, said Hassina Syed, who runs catering, construction and transportation firms. With the transition approaching "there is a lot of negative effect on the business sector," she told Kerry.
Kerry also spoke with civic leaders preparing for Afghanistan's 2014 elections, telling them he wanted to pay the "respects of everybody in America for the journey that you are on and for the great contribution you're making to your country and the efforts you're making to develop this democracy."
"You're engaged in a remarkable effort and the whole world is watching," Kerry said.
Kerry arrived Monday in Kabul amid concerns that Karzai may be jeopardizing progress in the war against extremism with his rhetoric. Karzai infuriated U.S. officials earlier this month by accusing Washington of colluding with Taliban insurgents to keep Afghanistan weak even as the Obama administration pressed ahead with plans to hand off security responsibility to Afghan forces and end NATO's combat mission by the end of next year.
After a private meeting, Kerry said he had asked Karzai about the comments and was very satisfied with the president's explanation. He said the two countries were on the same page as international forces prepare to end combat operations in 2014.
At a joint news conference after his talks with Kerry, Karzai told reporters his comments in a nationally televised speech had been misinterpreted by the media. Kerry demurred on that point but said people sometimes say things in public that reflect ideas they have heard from others but don't necessarily agree with.
"I am confident the president (Karzai) does not believe the U.S. has any interest except to see the Taliban come to the table to make peace and that we are completely cooperative with the government of Afghanistan with respect to the protection of their efforts and their people," Kerry said.
For his part, Karzai said he had been trying to make the point in his speech that if the Taliban really wanted foreign troops out of Afghanistan they should stop killing people. On Tuesday, eight suicide bombers attacked a police headquarters in the eastern city of Jalalabad, killing five officers and wounding four, police said. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attacks.
One of the female entrepreneurs Kerry met Tuesday was Afghan Women's National Soccer team captain Zahra Mahmoodi, who tries to promote gender equality through sports. She said that even with the presence of the international forces and aid groups that focus on women's rights, it is still a struggle to persuade traditional conservative families to allow their daughters to play.
Mahmoodi also had a more pressing request for Kerry: a field on which to play. Women's teams used to use the International Security Assistance Force's pitch for games, but it has been turned into a helicopter landing pad. Kerry promised he would look into the matter.