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The U.S. military has lifted a ban on contracts with an Afghan airline suspected of drug smuggling after the decision to blacklist the carrier sparked anger throughout the Afghan government.
In a statement released late Monday, the military said it had temporarily removed Kam Air from its blacklist pending an investigation into the allegations by the Afghan government. U.S. law prohibits the American government from contracting with companies with ties to enemy forces.
The decision appeared to be aimed at defusing Afghan anger over the ban, which had threatened to become a stumbling block in ongoing negotiations between Washington and Kabul over a long-term agreement for American forces in the country.
A spokesman for the U.S. military in Kabul said that Kam Air has no active contracts with the American military, so the change only affects the company's ability to bid for future contracts. The spokesman, Col. Tom Collins, said he did not know whether Kam Air had any such applications pending.
The U.S. placed Kam Air on the list of banned companies on Jan. 18 after a U.S. military investigation found evidence that opium was being smuggled out of the country on Kam Air flights. The ban was first reported later that month by The Wall Street Journal.
The ban of one of Afghanistan's largest commercial airlines rankled many inside the Afghan government at a particularly sensitive time in talks for a long-term agreement for U.S. forces in the country. Afghan officials said they had not been informed of the U.S. investigation and threatened legal action. Many said the reputation of one of their premier carriers had been tarnished.
At various points in the talks over the bilateral security agreement, which are expected to continue for months, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said that the American government appears to be acting unilaterally within his country, ignoring Afghanistan's national sovereignty. As the Kam Air uproar continued, it looked ready to become the next such flashpoint.
The ban only prevents the U.S. military from signing contracts with Kam Air, and has no direct impact the airline's ability to bid for contracts with other entities.
Still, the U.S. military made pointed use of the word "sovereignty" in its statement lifting the Kam Air ban.
The U.S. Central Command "believes it is an appropriate, logical course of action at this time for the sovereign Afghan government to conduct a full investigation of Kam Air," the statement said.
Collins, the spokesman for the U.S. military in Kabul, said there was no deadline for the completion of the Afghan investigation.
"They're going to take whatever time necessary," Collins said. "When it's complete we're going to come back together and decide what next steps to take."
A spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry welcomed the move.
"We believe this was the right decision to take," Janan Mosazai said. "At the same time, the Afghan government remains committed to fully investigating the whole matter."
The U.S. military said in their statement that they will provide evidence to the Afghans to help with their investigation. However, Collins said the process for that is still being worked out, since some of the information is classified.