Can Obama And Karzai Mend U.S.-Afghan Relations?

Afghan President Karzai i i

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington to mend fences with top Obama administration officials. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Afghan President Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington to mend fences with top Obama administration officials.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

When they meet at the White House on Wednesday, President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will try to reset their relationship, seeking to restore some trust while acknowledging their sharp differences over the way forward in Afghanistan.

Administration officials who deal with Afghanistan shuttled back and forth Tuesday morning between the White House and the State Department, where Karzai was hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Obama spent much of the day in meetings with his senior Afghanistan advisers, including the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Agreeing To Disagree

Both Clinton and Karzai referred obliquely to recent tensions between the Afghan leader and the Obama administration, but they sought to portray those tensions as signs of a mature relationship.

"The ability to disagree on issues of importance to our respective countries and peoples is not an obstacle to achieving our shared objectives," Clinton said, welcoming Karzai at the State Department.

"As mature nations ... we will be having disagreements from time to time," Karzai said.

The diplomatic language helped mask the depth of tensions between the administration and the Afghan leader over the past several months.

During his visit to Afghanistan in late March, President Obama reportedly pressured Karzai to keep his promises to crack down on corruption and improve governance.

Soon after, Karzai made a series of statements that angered and alarmed U.S. and NATO officials. He accused the West of interfering in Afghan affairs and said Western governments were behind the widespread vote fraud in last year's Afghan presidential elections. He also reportedly even threatened to join the Taliban himself.

By early April, relations between the White House and Karzai were so strained that White House spokesman Robert Gibbs suggested the Afghan president's visit might be canceled.

Gibbs said the U.S. would have "kind words" for Afghan leaders when they take steps to root out corruption, but "when leaders need to hear stern language from this administration about the consequences of not acting, we'll do that as well."

The White House tone has since softened.

"I think the administration is being very careful with Karzai now," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department officials and now a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. "They came to the conclusion that any pressure on him is counterproductive."

Talks With The Taliban?

Weinbaum says Karzai will probably press the administration to back his plans to seek a political reconciliation with the Taliban. The administration has already endorsed the Afghan president's efforts to reintegrate low- and midlevel Taliban fighters back into Afghan society, but it remains deeply skeptical of any plan that includes the Taliban leadership.

Karzai has scheduled a peace jirga, or council of elders, later this month to discuss the reconciliation plan. Taliban leaders were not invited, and they have publicly refused to even start talks with the government unless all foreign forces leave Afghanistan.

The U.S. position, which Secretary of State Clinton repeated on Tuesday, is that reconciliation would only be possible if the Taliban renounces violence, breaks all ties with al-Qaida, and abides by Afghanistan's Constitution.

U.S. officials are also hoping that a planned offensive against the Taliban in the area around Kandahar next month will further weaken the insurgents and make them more willing to negotiate.

Still, Weinbaum says he doesn't think the administration will react strongly to Karzai's proposals in public. He says the administration is likely to wish the Afghan leader well but say "he ought to be realistic about what's possible."

Governance And Corruption

Another touchy issue on the Obama administration's agenda: corruption in Afghanistan. The administration is expected to press Karzai to make good on his commitments to clean up cronyism and graft in his government.

Clinton said Tuesday that long-term stability in Afghanistan "requires a common and concerted effort against corruption."

Colin Cookman, of the Center for American Progress, says he would like to see the administration press Karzai for a clear plan to "institutionalize accountability" for government officials and give elected officials the power to hold government appointees to account.

That would mean giving up some of the central government's power, says Cookman, the co-author of a new report on governance in Afghanistan, "but we do have some incentives to offer."

Cookman points out that because of government corruption, a lot of foreign aid to Afghanistan bypasses government agencies. If the Karzai administration shows real reforms, he says, more of that assistance could be directed through the government.

Karzai appeared to be speaking to that issue at his meeting with Clinton on Wednesday, saying he will ask the U.S. to support a development strategy, "so Afghanistan can in a few years' time not be any more a burden on your shoulders."

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