Afghans Want Karzai's U.S. Trip To Be Fruitful

In Afghanistan, there is growing hope that President Karzai's trip to Washington will mend relations between the two governments. But few in the war-torn country think the visit will net any concrete results that will change the tide of destabilization there.

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Hamid Karzai goes to Washington this week for a long-awaited fence-mending visit with President Obama. For Afghanistan's president, much is riding on the talks. He has to win back the trust of U.S. officials, who've been put off by his anti-American rhetoric and diplomatic missteps - this as he's lost the trust of many in Afghanistan, who are weary of his proposals to reconcile with the Taliban. From Kabul, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

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SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: President Karzai's four-day trip to the United States was a hot topic on this popular current affairs program broadcast from Kabul.

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NELSON: The host of Tolo TV's "Comcash(ph)" program asks one guest what foreign newspapers are saying about the visit. Many Afghans are nervously looking for clues as to whether Karzai can garner billions of dollars more in financial and military commitments from the country he so openly criticized in the past few months. Fawzia Kufi is an Afghan lawmaker from Badakhshan Province.

Ms. FAWZIA KUFI (Afghan Lawmaker, Badakhshan Province): Well, the fact that the turf has been damaged, many people are not very hopeful that this will create a new atmosphere.

NELSON: They have good cause for concern. Many here expect that behind closed doors, Karzai will have to answer tough questions from the American president in Congress about why he has been biting the hand of his country's strongest backer, like when he organized a controversial visit by the Iranian president to Kabul several months ago, on the same day the U.S. secretary of defense was in town. Karzai stood by silently while Ahmadinejad insulted Robert Gates. That public gaff was followed by Karzai casting blame on the United States for election and develop fraud in Afghanistan. He's also suggested he may put the brakes on U.S. military operations this summer aimed at rooting out the Taliban from its stronghold in Kandahar Province.

Mr. SADEITH BASEON(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: As he picked up his fiancee from Kabul University last week, 24-year-old Sadeith Baseon worried that if Karzai doesn't patch up relations with Washington, it could spell disaster for Afghanistan. Things are bad enough, he says, given growing insecurity and a weak and corrupt Afghan government.

Still, Afghans don't want to see Karzai publically humiliated for his missteps, says Haroun Mir, who heads Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies. Mir says they also need to hear from the United States that it will not abandon Afghanistan next summer, when President Obama plans to start bringing U.S. troops home.

Mr. HAROUN MIR (Director, Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies): And this is what is important for Afghans, is to have the support of the U.S. for at least the next decade.

NELSON: Mir says Afghans fear that if the U.S. gives up on Karzai, it might do what it has done in the past: turn to Afghanistan's neighbors to fulfill its interests.

Mr. MIR: We worry that there might be a deal between U.S. and Pakistan, and then Afghanistan could be again sacrificed because of our own leaders.

NELSON: Afghan and Western analysts say Karzai shares that concern, but they add Karzai also has doubts that the war against the Afghan insurgents can be won, even if the U.S. does stick around. That's why many here believe Karzai is aggressively seeking a deal with the Taliban and other militants. It's widely expected that Karzai will try and sell U.S. officials on his proposals for making peace with the Taliban, as well as reintegrating the militants into Afghan society in hopes of getting money to fund those plans.

Candace Rondeaux is senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Ms. CANDACE RONDEAUX (Senior Afghanistan Analyst, International Crisis Group): I predict that these will be backroom discussions between not even necessarily Karzai himself and Obama, but certainly, you know, line ministers and those in the White House who are key advisors on Afghan policy. And these will be, I think, by far, the thorniest, most difficult, most contentious discussions. As long as these aren't publicly discussed, people will come away with perhaps a better impression of Karzai.

Analysts say that at a minimum, Karzai hopes to come away with a declaration of support for his peace jirga. That jirga, or assembly, which will bring together tribal elders and officials from across the country, was postponed in advance of the Washington visit. Lawmaker Fawzia Kufi says she hopes any U.S. support will come strict caveats. She fears the deal Karzai's perusing will roll back human rights advances made since the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001.

Ms. KUFI: My concern is that President Karzai is very, very smart in terms of convincing the partners when he meets them in person. I hope that if there are talks about reconciliation and reintegration with the Taliban, the value of constitution, woman's rights, freedom of speech, freedom of media, is reserved, and there is no compromises on such values that we have.

NELSON: The peace jirga is now set for May 29th.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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