President Barack Obama and Afghan leader Hamid Karzai meet this week looking for ways to resolve disputes over corruption and possible terms for peace as the U.S.-led military campaign moves into the Taliban’s heartland.
Karzai and members of his Cabinet arrived in Washington yesterday for four days of talks with U.S. officials about security, economic development and governance. This year will be “pivotal,” U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry said at a White House briefing yesterday with the top NATO commander in the war, General Stanley McChrystal.
The military operation under way in the country’s south “will focus on the complex political and governance aspects in Kandahar,” McChrystal said. “These dimensions are at the heart of the problem and their solution will ultimately be decisive.”
Karzai’s visit falls at about the midpoint between Obama’s announcement of a new strategy and more troops for Afghanistan and a year-end review of progress. The U.S. is fighting to reverse Taliban gains and strengthen Afghanistan’s government and security forces enough to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011.
This week’s talks, which include a three-hour White House session with Obama, are partly aimed at mending fences between Karzai and the administration over the Afghan government’s lack of progress in fighting corruption and improving government services.
The U.S. also is discouraging Afghan government talks with the Taliban until the military offensive weakens the insurgents.
“One of the challenges right now is that the Obama administration is trying to salvage its relationship” with Karzai, said Caroline Wadhams, director for South Asia Security Studies at the Center for American Progress policy group in Washington.
Karzai last year chafed at leaked cables from Eikenberry to the State Department saying a surge of troops would fail in the absence of stronger Afghan leadership than Karzai could provide. And U.S. officials publicly rebuked the Afghan president this year for allegations of foreign interference in the August election.
The ambassador declined two opportunities at the briefing to express unqualified confidence in Karzai, saying he “highly” respects the president “in that capacity.”
“The U.S. and Afghan governments have never been better aligned,” Eikenberry said.
Widespread corruption in a country at war for most of the past three decades is undermining efforts to protect and improve the lives of citizens enough to turn them away from the Taliban, U.S. officials have said.
“More needs to be done in certain areas, and that’s a view that we think is shared by the Afghans,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said in a May 7 briefing.
Afghan officials have been crafting a plan to ensure better stewardship of the government and resources such as the nation’s estimated $1 trillion to $3 trillion of mineral wealth, Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister who challenged Karzai for the presidency last year, said in a telephone interview.
“President Karzai is committed to creating the platinum standard of governance on this,” said Ghani, who pledged his support at a January conference in London. “It’s going to be a very productive visit, and it is going to provide the grounds for mutual confidence on both sides.”
Potential reconciliation with Taliban leaders is the other topic at the top of the agenda this week. Karzai plans a “peace jirga” later this month in Afghanistan to reach a national consensus that would support his reconciliation efforts.
The Obama administration wants to know “what is their understanding of the pacing or the sequencing of a peace process, who is going to be involved in that process and who does the Karzai administration want to talk to,” said Alexander Thier, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
“What the Karzai administration wants to know from the Obama folks is, are you on board with high-level talks with insurgents and what are the conditions that you would impose on such talks,” he said.
At the same time, the U.S. and Afghan forces are undertaking a military offensive combined with civilian aid and governance efforts in Taliban’s spiritual home of Kandahar.
“We will encounter increased violence as our combined security forces expand into Taliban-controlled areas,” McChrystal said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will host a dinner for Karzai this evening. Karzai will meet with Clinton and other officials tomorrow while some of his ministers fan out to U.S. government departments to discuss issues such as defense strategy and agricultural development. Karzai meets with Obama May 12.
Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, Obama’s adviser on Afghanistan, said the U.S. is still “on track” to meet Obama’s goals of beginning a drawdown of U.S. troops from the war in July 2011.
“President Karzai has taken a number of steps since his commitments in the inaugural address and at the London conference,” Lute said. The U.S. expects to hear “additional steps that he plans and how we can best support those steps as his partner.”