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Efforts in works to ease Afghan leader's concerns, top U.S. commander says

| Monday, March 18, 2013, 8:03 p.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan — The top U.S. military chief in Afghanistan said on Monday that his team is working as fast as possible to resolve issues that have infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai, including the delay in handing over a U.S.-run detention center and the withdrawal of American special forces from a troubled province neighboring Kabul.

The efforts illustrate the growing tensions between the commander, Gen. Joseph Dunford, and an Afghan ally who is struggling to break free from international influence and establish independence after more than a decade of relying on a foreign military force for security.

The latest stumbling blocks in the relationship have delayed a round of talks on a pivotal U.S.-Afghan security agreement to govern the American troops expected to stay past 2014, when the NATO-led coalition will end its combat mission. Talks on the unfinished pact were supposed to take place in Kabul last week.

“We're working issues with a sense of urgency,” Dunford told The Associated Press in his first one-on-one interview since he took command. “But the issues are complex, and they're fundamental ... so you have to get it right.”

Speaking in his office in the capital, Kabul, Dunford would not say when the detention center would be handed over.

Dunford is trying to address a series of increasingly strident decrees that Karzai has laid down since Dunford took charge five weeks ago. It started just days after he arrived, when Karzai insisted that the coalition cease all airstrikes as a result of a NATO airstrike that caused civilian casualties. More recently, Karzai has demanded that U.S. special operations forces leave Wardak province, alleging that U.S. commandos and their Afghan partners abused local citizens — a charge Dunford denies.

Karzai has kept up a steady stream of invective in public remarks, even accusing the United States of working with the Taliban to keep the country unstable, as an excuse to stay longer. That spurred anger on Capitol Hill.

“What to do about President Karzai? Isn't he making success more problematic? He sure is,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. “Karzai's absurd remarks weaken the support of the American people ... and they raise doubts in many if not most American minds about the wisdom of a long-term strategic relationship with Afghanistan, with all of its costs and risks.”

Last week, Dunford warned his commanders to raise their security levels, saying Karzai's comments could stir more anti-American sentiment and spur more insider attacks.

But he has remained studiously polite in public, seeking to use face-to-face meetings with Karzai to ease tension and temper Karzai's angry demands for change.

Dunford, a Marine Corps general with a master's degree in government from Georgetown University and one in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said it's simply a matter of “working the issues.”

“In all honesty, it hasn't been that contentious on a personal level,” Dunford said.

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