US & World

U.S.-Afghan Ties In Focus As Karzai Visits


Over the next four days, officials from both nations will meet in Washington, D.C., to vent concerns and offers suggestions on a wide range of issues, including strengthening Afghan security and judicial systems and improving accountability in the Afghan government.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai began a four-day visit to Washington, D.C., on Monday in the wake of a particularly turbulent time in relations between the two governments.

Over the next four days, officials from both sides will be able to vent concerns and suggestions on a wide range of issues, including strengthening Afghan security and judicial systems and improving accountability in the Afghan government.

"Discussions will also cover our combined strategy to bring peace and security to Afghanistan, longer-term bilateral relations and the growth of the Afghan economy in sustainable ways," said Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

The Afghan contingent will also raise the issue of civilian casualties.

Eikenberry 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," he said.

He noted significant improvements in the U.S. and NATO military and civilian efforts over the past year.

Appearing with Eikenberry, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said 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's trip with a large delegation of Cabinet ministers is his government's widest engagement with U.S. leaders since his re-election in a flawed vote last year.

From the U.S. 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 U.S.-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 U.S. 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 power brokers see as their due.

-- The war, now in its ninth year, remains unpopular in the United States, Europe and 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 U.S. military officials say time is running out for those troops to make a difference. Top military leaders generally give the policy about another year. After that, there is little chance of changing the equation if the war remains deadlocked.

-- 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-Qaida. 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, his outreach to disaffected tribes and potential insurgents, and the difficult counterinsurgency effort already under way in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province.

Karzai meets with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday and President Obama on Wednesday.

Although there is no formal state dinner at the White House, a dinner hosted by Vice President 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 on Wednesday and Thursday.

All sides will try to say as little as possible about the Obama administration's early ambivalence toward Karzai, which he took as a slight, or Karzai's recent outbursts against what he called foreign interference.

A year ago, U.S. officials frequently pointed to their efforts to develop political talent outside of Karzai's inner circle. That is still a tenet of McChrystal's revamped U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, but U.S. officials decided it did them no good to publicly undermine Karzai, said Gilles Dorronsoro, who studies the Afghan political system at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"What's changed is not the Afghan attitude but the U.S. attitude," Dorronsoro said. "The U.S. administration understands after too long that all the public pressure on Karzai was a mistake. Karzai now is dealing with the Americans probably better, because the Americans are less pushy, less bossy."

NPR's Jackie Northam contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press

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