Three days in Washington: How Hamid Karzai resuscitated his image

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was on the verge of becoming a pariah only weeks ago. But after his trip to Washington, he leaves as a crucial and trusted US ally once again.

Zhang Jun/Xinhua/Newscom
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (c.) repeatedly struck the right notes during his three-day visit to the US, including this visit to Arlington National Cemetery Thursday, where he paid tribute to American soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan.

There was no talk of joining the Taliban when Afghan President Hamid Karzai sat down Thursday afternoon for a “public conversation” with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The threat Mr. Karzai issued recently in a pique of frustration over US pressure on him and his country seemed to be buried and gone. Instead, during three days in Washington, the Afghan leader basked in his new role as a crucial and trusted partner of the United States – firmly rehabilitated from the times when the Obama administration hinted that he was a corrupt and ineffective leader.

Over the course of his one-hour appearance with Secretary Clinton at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, Karzai’s suave performance suggested how that rehabilitation had been won. He spoke to an audience that included President Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, as well as some members of Congress and Washington think-tankers. His topics played to his audience: Afghanistan’s importance to American security, an appreciation for the sacrifice of American blood and treasure, and the important and growing role women play in Afghanistan.

But he also suggested that a new sense of “partnership” between the US and Afghanistan is emerging. Increasingly, the US is seeing the relationship less in terms of what it wants and thinks is best, and more as a joint project based on the needs and desires of the Afghan people, he said.

The 'right approach' to Kandahar offensive

For example, he said that international forces “since the last week” had “adopted the right approach” to the southern city of Kandahar, where a military offensive has been anticipated for months. Instead of a military operation against the Afghan people, he said, international forces were now more focused on bringing “more resources and more economic activity” to Kandahar.

Asked later by a reporter what he meant by “last week,” Karzai said that as a result of “consultations we have had” with military commanders, the coming Kandahar campaign has been modified so that “we are not calling it an operation, we talk of a process.”

Clinton concurred, saying the offensive would not be a “massive assault” but a “weeding out” of insurgent strongholds from in and around an “active urban area.”

“This is not Fallujah,” she said, referring to the US military operation in 2004 to rout the Iraqi insurgency from the Sunni city west of Baghdad.

“A lot of lessons have been learned since Iraq,” she added. The US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, would employ the new counterinsurgency approach “to use different tools to root out” the Taliban, she said.

Unlike the insurgency in Fallujah, the Taliban “are not going to take over Kandahar,” she said, “but their presence has a chilling effect” on everything from economic activity to girls’ willingness to attend school.

To which a satisfied Karzai responded, “Yes!”

Reintegrating the Taliban

Clinton also suggested during the conversation that the US is now resigned to beginning by the end of the month a national dialogue aimed at reintegrating some members of the Taliban – a key Karzai aim. The effort will focus on fighters and insurgent leaders up to mid-level.

Clinton backed Karzai’s goal of reintegrating thousands of what he called “countryside boys” who had strayed to the Taliban not for ideological reasons but out of economic interest.

But she laid out a series of conditions that any Taliban leaders seeking a return to working inside Afghan society would have to meet, including renouncing violence, cutting any ties to Al Qaeda, and adhering to the laws and rights set forth in Afghanistan’s Constitution – including women’s rights.

Karzai expressed satisfaction that his Washington visit had helped fashion a new relationship based on mutual respect and built to outlive an eventual departure of foreign military forces.

What he foresees “is the day when we won’t be asking the US Congress for salaries [for Afghan security forces] but for investment,” he said, before adding with a smile, “and for F-16s.”


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