Foreign Minister Abdullah on U.S.-Afghan Relations

Renee Montagne talks with Afghanistan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. He is in Washington with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who met with President Bush earlier this week. Abdullah discusses prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, recent anti-American protests and ongoing tensions in U.S.-Afghan relations.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A new American ambassador to Afghanistan has been named, Ronald Newman, who will be leaving a diplomatic posting in Baghdad to take over in Kabul. Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, was in the United States this week for his second official visit. His foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, was part of the delegation and stopped by our Washington studios. His trip comes amid continuing news related to detainees, charges of desecrating the Koran in Guantanamo and deadly abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, welcome.

Mr. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH (Foreign Minister, Afghanistan): Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Seven American soldiers have been charged in the beating deaths of two Afghan men detained in 2002 at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Were these deaths news to you?

Mr. ABDULLAH: It came as a news, of course. We didn't know about it.

MONTAGNE: Do you have any indication or any evidence that abuse of detainees in Afghanistan is still going on?

Mr. ABDULLAH: Is still going on? I'm not aware of that. But do we need discussions on these issues in order to prevent anything from happening? That, I would say, yes.

MONTAGNE: When these two deaths of Afghan detainees came out, President Karzai's reaction was that Afghanistan should take possession, if you will, of its own people, presumably in Guantanamo, but certainly in Afghanistan. How many detainees are quietly being returned to Afghan custody?

Mr. ABDULLAH: Quite a few have been returned. I cannot give you the number. The issue of taking the custody of Afghan prisoners by Afghanistan, this is an issue that there is an understanding on it, but it will take time before we develop facilities and also the institutions needed in order to deal with this issue.

MONTAGNE: There have been reports of abuse of the Koran, charges made by former detainees, dating back to 2002. Why did an item in Newsweek magazine about the desecration of the Koran--why did that item spark riots?

Mr. ABDULLAH: Some extremist groups in Afghanistan, some people linked to Taliban from outside Afghanistan, perhaps in cases from within Afghanistan--those who were against the process. They managed to capitalize on that event. So that's where this issue was taken into violence.

MONTAGNE: And why, though, were they able to capitalize on it? Has Afghanistan reached a point where there's a vulnerability there?

Mr. ABDULLAH: I should say that we need to look into this issue thoroughly and draw the lessons from it. Perhaps the way the--our own security forces did not act professionally at the beginning of it. Or why we didn't--we were not aware of the fact that there were elements who wanted to ignite a reaction, which, at the beginning, it seemed to be a very peaceful demonstration. So all these issues have to be looked at.

MONTAGNE: It's been three and a half years since the Taliban were ousted. On this visit to the United States, and looking back at Afghanistan, where would you say your country is right now?

Mr. ABDULLAH: The challenges are as big as we started at the beginning, but the nature of the challenges has changed, a long way from where Afghanistan was but a long way from where Afghanistan should be. That would be an Afghanistan which is stable, which will be able to stand on its own feet.

MONTAGNE: Abdullah Abdullah is the foreign minister of Afghanistan. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. ABDULLAH: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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