US, Karzai seek to mend fraying relationship at summit

Washington has been increasingly critical of the Afghan president. But with Karzai likely to win reelection this year, both sides will want to dial back the recriminations.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived in Washington Tuesday acknowledging recent "tense moments" in US-Afghan relations, but asserting that America's continued close relationship with his country will be at the core of success against extremism.

Mr. Karzai, who has presided over Afghanistan since 2002, is in Washington for a trilateral summit called by President Obama that will include Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. The summit, set for Wednesday and Thursday, is meant to underscore the Obama administration's conclusion in its policy review that Pakistan is inextricably linked to the Afghan struggle with extremist forces in the Taliban and must be part of any strategy for the war in Afghanistan.

The Obama strategy for Afghanistan will result in more American troops on the ground and what Karzai called a "civilian surge" of development efforts. The strategy is "a good step in the right direction, but it must be very carefully applied," Karzai said Tuesday in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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Karzai's cautionary note reflects the frustration and resentment he has expressed publicly over mounting civilian casualties resulting from US military operations. That frustration has been matched by US doubts over Karzai's leadership capacity and ability to tackle rampant government corruption.

But despite the recent differences, Karzai said in his speech Tuesday that the "fundamentals" of the US-Afghan relationship are "very, very strong."

Indeed, after months of sniping between the two governments, the United States and Afghanistan have dialed back their mutual recriminations following a realistic assessment on both sides of the hand each has been dealt: Karzai seems almost certain to win another term in August elections. And with NATO partners limiting or even scaling back their Afghanistan commitments, the US is more than ever the Karzai government's dominant international partner.

In his speech, Karzai seemed at pains to recast the issue of civilian casualties in terms of the common interest he said both countries have in winning the battle with extremism. The most important element determining the success of the US engagement in Afghanistan will be the Afghan people's confidence in it, he said. And the key to that will be "making sure that Afghans don't suffer the consequences [of the war] as they suffer today."

Karzai did allow himself a jab at the comment, made by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates before Congress, that the war in Afghanistan would not result in a new "Valhalla." It is not "Valhalla" that Afghans seek, Karzai said, but security and greater opportunities for their children.

The Obama administration rose to power with Afghanistan at the top of its foreign-policy list, but this week's trilateral summit takes place in a different context.

Pakistan has jumped to the top of Washington's worry list, with concern growing over the country's stability and the security of its nuclear arsenal as Islamist extremists have gained ground. But it is still Afghanistan – where US forces will increase from 32,000 from 68,000 by the end of the year – that at least at this point commands the larger US personnel commitment.

Mr. Obama will meet with each leader separately, and the three leaders will also meet together. All indications are that "tense" could also apply to the Afghan-Pakistani relationship.

In his comments Tuesday, Karzai spoke of his country's long "kinship" with its eastern neighbor, but he also made pointed references to clandestine involvement in Afghanistan of Pakistani security and intelligence forces – in particular aimed at disrupting Afghanistan's growing relations with India.

When one questioner asked why, if the Taliban have such low support among the Afghan people, they seem to be gaining ground, Karzai turned to a Pakistani official in the audience and queried, "May I speak about sanctuaries?" He then went on to offer his view that the havens that Taliban fighters and Al Qaeda sympathizers have found over the border in Pakistan have offered them a base from which to carry out their operations.

Karzai made several references to the large sacrifice that US taxpayers are making to improve living conditions in Afghanistan. For the immediate future, he said, his objective concerning American tax dollars is to "keep them coming," but he also quipped that his long-term "vision [is] an Afghanistan where you can come as tourists, and not as aid workers ... an Afghanistan that you will not fear [but] that would be safe for itself and for the world."

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