Karzai, Obama To Rebuild Strained Relations

Afghan President Karzai meets President Obama at the White House for wide-ranging talks on Afghanistan Wednesday. The meeting is ahead of a major U.S. military operation in the southern province of Kandahar. A key issue is Karzai's plan for a national conference on reconciliation with the Taliban.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Here in Washington, President Obama will spend a good part of his day, today, with his Afghan counterpart, President Hamid Karzai. The two leaders meet this morning in the Oval Office, hold a joint news conference and share lunch.

As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, the red carpet treatment is part of an effort by the Obama administration to repair strained relations with the Karzai government.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Just a few short weeks ago, Karzai's plans to visit Washington began to look like they would be derailed. Relations between the Karzai and Obama administrations, never particularly robust, had soured. At one point, officials on both sides were trading insults and accusations.

This week its a different story. The Afghan president, along with a large contingent of his cabinet, arrived in D.C. abroad a U.S. Air Force plane. They're being treated to receptions and dinners and high level meetings with American officials. U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stressed the important partnership between the two countries.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): By deepening that strategic partnership, we will make progress on our shared vision and we will deepen the bonds between our nations and peoples and those bonds will endure long after the last combatant has laid down his arms.

NORTHAM: President Karzai also indicated that the rocky patch was behind them.

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): As two mature nations, and as two mature governments, we'll be having disagreements on issues from time to time. But that is the sign of a matured relationship, and a sign of a steady relationship.

NORTHAM: There have been many disagreements. The U.S. has been pressuring Karzai to tackle the corruption that pervades every corner of his government, and to hold officials accountable to the people. Nathaniel Fick, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security, notes those complaints were often stated publicly.

Mr. NATHANIEL FICK (CEO, Center for a New American Security): I think one of the great lessons is that the approach that the U.S. took last year, of really publicly pressuring Karzai on corruption and governance and other issues, didn't work. Now we both have come to the conclusion that we are each other's best possible partner, and now we need to find a way to work together.

NORTHAM: Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says it's good the Obama and Karzai administrations are trying to repair relations. But Dorronsoro says that won't solve the fundamental problem that the Karzai government is not a viable partner for the U.S.

Mr. GILLES DORRONSORO (Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): It's not a viable partner in the sense that the level of coaching is such in Afghanistan that nobody's trusting the Afghan government. And after the election, the last year election, the political capital of Karzai in Afghanistan is zero.

NORTHAM: Still, Dorronsoro says just the fact that Karzai moves within the inner circles of Washington gives him a certain amount of respect amongst the Afghan people. Dorronsoro says it's smart to give Karzai the royal treatment in Washington. If he looks good, Washington gets more cooperation out of him.

Mr. DORRONSORO: If there is an obvious show of respect in Washington, it's good for him in Kabul. We're in for the perception that Karzai is somebody important. He's going to work the coalition on the ground later.

NORTHAM: And the U.S. needs Karzai's help, especially as a major offensive is due to get underway in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. President Obama also wants to start pulling troops out of Afghanistan just over a year from now. Part of that may depend on a reconciliation process with the militants. One of the critical discussions during Karzai's visit will be to come up with a framework for negotiating with the Taliban, says Nathaniel Fick.

Mr. FICK: Part of the agenda in Washington this week almost certainly is to agree on what the red lines are for negotiation, under what circumstances is it okay and to what extent is it okay for Karzai to enter into some sort of political negotiation with elements of the Taliban.

NORTHAM: Fick says that the tactical shift by the Obama administration, being nicer to Karzai, may help the two sides reach an agreement on how to proceed with those negotiations.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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