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Kerry Stops In Afghanistan On Diplomatic Mission


Secretary of State John Kerry is putting his diplomatic skills to the test this week. He is dealing with some difficult partners and trying to revive Israeli/Palestinian peace talks. Kerry spent the day yesterday in Baghdad and today he made an announced trip to Afghanistan to try to smooth over the latest disputes with President Hamid Karzai. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary and joins us now from Kabul. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So this visit by Kerry to Afghanistan, it comes just hours after the United States handed over control of Bagram prison to Afghanistan. It's been a thorny issue between the two governments for some time. What is Kerry's message around that?

KELEMEN: Well, he's come here really to talk about this transition, this transition from the U.S. being the lead military force on the ground here to more of a supporting role. I mean the U.S. is pulling troops out of Afghanistan and hopes to end combat operations by the end of next year.

So Kerry is here to talk about this transition, to talk about elections next year, the changing U.S. role, and also to get over this pretty thorny time with Karzai. Recently he was angry over that issue, the detention issue and other things, and he complained that the U.S. was collaborating with the Taliban. U.S. officials traveling with Kerry say he's not come here to lecture or chide Karzai about that. Many other U.S. officials have done that. But they hope to really move forward and beyond this dispute.

GREENE: Yeah, those comments by Karzai really angered a lot of U.S. officials. You know, Michele, if there's a personal element in diplomacy, I mean we should mention that Kerry has been to Afghanistan before. He knows Karzai. I mean could that make a difference here?

KELEMEN: I think his aides certainly hope so. I mean they say that he was here five times just during the Obama administration. He was the one that President Obama often sent out over here to smooth over relations with Karzai, so he has a long record on that. And Kerry seems to feel confident that the relationships that he's built up over his long tenure in the Senate really do make a difference. He hopes that in dealing with all of these very troubling issues - Afghanistan, Pakistan - that his relationships will matter.

And I should note that he was hoping to go to Pakistan on this trip as well, but that country's in the midst of elections. So instead he had a late-night meeting with the Pakistani chief of the army staff, Kayani, last night in Jordan. He happened to be there.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about one other country he did go to, and that was Iraq. I mean in Baghdad, Kerry tried to get Iraq's government to stop letting Iran use its airspace to get weapons into Syria. I mean it sounds like a very important issue. Does the U.S. have leverage there?

KELEMEN: It is a very important issue, and actually the Iraqis promised the U.S. last year that it would ground and search some Iranian flights, but apparently they've only done that twice. Secretary Kerry said he had a very spirited discussion with Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, about that in Baghdad yesterday, but he didn't seem to reach any agreement on it. He said he's going to come back and he has some homework to do on it.

GREENE: NPR's Michele Kelemen talking to us from Kabul, Afghanistan, where Secretary of State John Kerry arrived earlier today. Michele, thanks, and safe travels.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.