White House offers optimistic outlook as Karzai visits

Afghan war, status of his government vital talk topics

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended a dinner with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai (second from left). US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended a dinner with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai (second from left). (Jason Reed/ Reuters)
By Anne Gearan
Associated Press / May 11, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration sought yesterday to smooth over past differences with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who arrived here on a four-day mission to convince Americans that his country is not a lost cause.

At a White House news conference, Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, acknowledged that relations with Karzai have been shaky at times.

“But what measures true partnership is the ability, when the stakes are as high as they are for Afghanistan and the United States of America, to be able to work our way through difficulties and come back together and still find ourselves well aligned,’’ Eikenberry said.

He said that after this week’s meetings, “I think we’re going to emerge with even better alignment.’’

Signficant improvements in the United States and NATO military and civilian efforts have been made over the past year, Eikenberry said. “We’re confident that we’re much better postured to help deliver the progress needed in the months ahead,’’ he said.

Appearing with Eikenberry, General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, told reporters he has a good relationship with Karzai. “I think it’s important that I have an effective, candid responsible relationship,’’ McChrystal said. “And I’ve been real happy with it thus far.’’

Karzai and a large delegation of Cabinet ministers arrived for the Karzai government’s widest engagement with US leaders since his reelection in a flawed vote last year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was visiting Afghanistan Sunday, said Karzai will be received in Washington with “great dignity, great friendship, and great candor.’’

From the US perspective, the week’s events are intended to show respect for Karzai, who seems destined to preside over Kabul’s eventual political reconciliation with the Taliban, not to mention the gradual withdrawal of the US-led forces now holding the insurgents at bay.

Behind the genial public facade of the visit, both sides will struggle with deeply divisive issues:

■ Karzai presides over a weak central government established with heavy US and European guidance and supported with billions in aid. He is a talented politician and a proven survivor but has failed to rally Afghans to his side.

■ Karzai’s government suffers from endemic corruption, part of Afghanistan’s entrenched culture of barter and payoff, also exploited by the Taliban, local warlords, and drug rings. What Washington sees as shameless nepotism or bribery, Afghanistan’s powerbrokers see as their due.

■ The war, now in its ninth year, remains unpopular in the United States, Europe, and in much of Afghanistan itself. Obama accepted the argument for more forces made by McChrystal, the counterinsurgency expert the president installed to turn the war around last summer. Now US military officials say time is running out for those troops to make a difference. Top military leaders generally give the policy about another year.

■ Afghanistan still has an uneasy, unequal relationship with Pakistan, its nuclear-armed neighbor. Parts of Pakistan have become havens for Taliban insurgents battling Karzai’s government, and for Al Qaeda. That could be a more critical factor in whether militants once again acquire the capability to launch a catastrophic attack on the United States or its allies.

Karzai’s discussions this week are expected to focus on the health of Afghanistan’s central government, Karzai’s outreach to disaffected tribes and potential insurgents, and the difficult counterinsurgency effort already under way in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province.

He will meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton today and President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden tomorrow.

There is no formal state dinner at the White House, but a dinner hosted by Biden is intended as a fence-mender. Biden was particularly incensed when Karzai remarked last month that if foreign interference in his government continued, the Taliban would become a legitimate resistance force — one that he might even join.

Karzai will face close questions about that statement when he sees members of Congress and tomorrow and Thursday.

McChrystal and Eikenberry arrived ahead of Karzai as part of a schedule so tightly scripted by the White House that some senior Pentagon officials were not told of plans for the general to hold a White House press conference yesterday. They learned from reporters after the white House announced it.

The strategy for the 8-year-old Afghan war is one main topic for Karzai’s meetings with officials.