Hamid Karzai comes to Washington: Will US-Afghanistan tensions ease?

Mutual suspicions are expected to be set aside as Afghan President Hamid Karzai visits Washington this week. Both countries seek a stronger partnership that will help Afghanistan resist the Taliban.

Pete Souza/The White House/Newscom
President Obama meets with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 28. Obama and Karzai are looking for progress as Karzai visits Washington this week.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrives in Washington Monday for a four-day visit that both the US and Afghanistan are determined to see put their countries’ partnership on a more productive – and less cantankerous – path.

Mutual suspicions have marked the relationship between Mr. Karzai and President Obama – at least since the Afghan leader’s trouble-pocked reelection last year. Obama has fumed over an unaccountable leader who has done little to stem rampant corruption, while Karzai has blasted an arrogant foreign presence in his country, going so far as to recently charge the US with seeking a “servant government” from the Afghans.

But both sides say a common interest in a stronger Afghanistan that uses the US and NATO “partnership” to improve governance and wrest terrain from the Afghan Taliban will trump quarrels that at least publicly will be laid to rest.

“The nature of strategic partnerships like the one between the United States and Afghanistan [is that] they feature ups and downs,” says Douglas Lute, Obama’s special assistant for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “But the difference between a mere relationship and a partnership like the one [with Afghanistan] is that partnerships endure the ups and downs and continue to press forward towards the common goals on which the partnership is founded.”

Both leaders have made concessions to the other side in the run-up to this visit.

Obama has ordered a shift from criticism to praise of Karzai and the Afghan government. In particular, he has urged a toning-down of nepotism and corruption charges that zeroed in on Karzai family members, most notably a brother in government in Kandahar. Karzai postponed a national peace conference, or consultative jirga, until after his Washington visit after US officials expressed concern that Karzai would go too far in accommodating the Taliban.

Both leaders will be looking for assurances from the other: Obama, that Karzai has a plan for following up on NATO efforts by extending security and governance into areas won away from Taliban control; and Karzai, that the US will not just pack up and leave once Obama’s plan to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011 kicks in.

Karzai’s day at the White House is Wednesday, during which the two leaders will hold a Rose Garden press conference and a working lunch bringing together their respective national security teams. The Afghan leader meets with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other State Department officials on Tuesday, while Secretary Clinton and Karzai engage in a “public conversation” Thursday.

Karzai will also dine Wednesday with Vice-President Joe Biden, who was particularly incensed at Karzai’s threats – after a tense surprise visit by Obama to Kabul in March – to go into opposition and perhaps even join the Taliban.

The White House underscored the importance of Karzai’s visit by summoning the two top US officials in Aghanistan – US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and top military commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal – to Washington.

Karzai’s visit is seen as a kind of “reset” of the US-Afghan partnership. More than that it kicks off an intense diplomatic and military calendar that features Afghanistan and culminates in December with an anticipated public accounting by Obama of his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy for defeating Al Qaeda and its supporters.

At the end of May, Karzai is expected to hold the consultative conference or jirga, and then in July he is expected to host an international conference – the first international conference on Afghanistan to actually be held on Afghan soil, according to the White House – where the Karzai government is to present an “action plan” in response to the international conference for Afghanistan held in London earlier this year.

Afghanistan is also scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in September.

In the meantime, the US is gradually bringing up its military contingent in Afghanistan by deploying the 30,000 additional troops Obama ordered, and will soon launch its awaited offensive against Taliban strongholds in the Kandahar region.

In previewing the Afghan leader’s visit, White House officials have emphasized the progress the US has seen in Karzai’s governance since his questioned reelection.

General Lute notes that Karzai has taken “a number of steps” against corruption, such as beefing up a special office for anticorruption measures. Karzai has also mandated disclosure of financial assets by senior government officials, he says.

Officials say Obama will also make clear to Karzai that the US does not oppose his plan for reintegrating low-level Taliban fighters into Afghan society, but wants a clearer understanding of how the Afghan government plans to promote reconciliation with the Taliban leadership.

“This visit is an opportunity to discuss issues related to reintegration and reconciliation with President Karzai and his team so that we have an understanding,” says Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, “of what our shared objectives are in this area, and what an Afghan-led process would look like moving forward.”


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