Bush Plays Host to Karzai for Weekend Talks

Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with President Bush at Camp David this weekend. It's the Afghan leader's first visit to the presidential retreat in Maryland, and it comes at a time when Karzai is under growing pressure abroad and at home.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with President Bush at Camp David this weekend. It is the Afghan leader's first visit to the presidential retreat in Maryland, and it comes at a time when he's under growing pressure abroad and at home.

His government is accused of being weak and corrupt, and unable to deal with the growing insecurity across Afghanistan. President Karzai faces criticism for his handling of both foreign and Afghan hostages held by the Taliban. At the same time, he's under pressure to deal more harshly with the West and mounting civilian casualties caused by NATO and U.S. troops. An air strike in southern Helmand province yesterday reportedly killed dozens of people.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is with us now from Kabul for a preview of the talks. And Soraya, what is President Karzai's goal in these two days of talks with President Bush?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, I spoke with his presidential advisor and he said there were several things that the president is looking to accomplish. One is that he wants to accelerate reconstruction and do what they call Afghanizing more projects. In other words, having Afghans run and be responsible for these projects, whether they be reconstruction or programs to help the people, you know, education, health.

And he's also seeking more equipment and training for Afghan forces, particularly the police, which even U.S. officials here admit need a lot of help. The last thing is that he's also seeking firmer action on the issue of civilian casualties. As the West has become more aggressive in its pursuit of Taliban fighters and other insurgents, a growing number of innocent Afghans are dying in the crossfire. And so there's a feeling here that the West doesn't consider Afghan lives important and Karzai is determined to change that.

NORRIS: So that's President Karzai's agenda. What do we think President Bush wants?

SARHADDI NELSON: Well, the State Department was describing this as a high-level discussion of strategy. The main thing, I'm sure, for them is that they're going to try to figure out how to boost Karzai's standing back home, and they'll also be discussing the $10 billion in U.S. money that's flown in the Afghanistan this year to fight terror and rebuild the country. That's three times as much money as was spent by the U.S. in Afghanistan last year.

NORRIS: How was this visit viewed back there in Afghanistan?

SARHADDI NELSON: Well, in terms of the public, it's been pretty low key, so I don't think many ordinary citizens are even aware that he's leaving. But many critics of Karzai view this trip as one in which President Bush will be giving Karzai something like a yellow card warning, like they do in soccer. They basically feel that President Bush is going to pressure Karzai into cleaning up his government's act, as everyone from the Afghan president's own brother down to a traffic policeman here are accused of pocketing money rather than moving Afghanistan forward.

NORRIS: Now you said the U.S. is interested in helping boost President Karzai's standing back at home. But if a picture of him standing shoulder to shoulder with President Bush appears on the front page of the papers, say, there, how will that affect him back in Afghanistan?

SARHADDI NELSON: Well it'll depend on what he brings home with him. In other words, if it's just a picture and then everything continues business as usual, that's not going to help very much. If he's able to bring money, let's say, and actually have it going to projects that people can see - and also, I mean, even better if he's able to convince President Bush to put more pressure on Pakistan to deal with the issue of the Taliban leadership and Taliban fighters who are believed to be coming over from that side, then I think it'll be very effective, but there's a lot of doubt that that's going to happen.

NORRIS: It sounds like there's a lot at stake for President Karzai in terms of his standing at home and the criticism that he faces there.

SARHADDI NELSON: There is certainly a lot at stake. At the moment, here in parliament, they're looking to oust senior members of his cabinet, including the foreign minister. He has been pressured into signing bills that grant amnesty to warlords and others who might have committed war crimes in the past. And he's seen as ever weakening. And even his dealing right now with the hostage crisis is not viewed as - he's under a lot of pressure by the foreign governments, especially South Korea, to release prisoners in exchange for hostages. But if he does that, many people think he'll be finished here because he swore he would never do it again. He hasn't done it for Afghans.

And so there's really a perception that President Karzai is more eager to please foreigners than he is his own people.

NORRIS: We've been speaking to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson from Kabul. Soraya, thank you very much.

SARHADDI NELSON: You're welcome, Michele.

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