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In U.S., Karzai Seeks To Repair Image, Win Support For Peace Talks

  • Heather Maher

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

WASHINGTON -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has kicked off a four-day visit to Washington with a dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after arriving in the nation's capital with an entourage that includes 12 cabinet ministers and several other high-ranking officials from his government.

Karzai will spend the day at the State Department and is set to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on May 12.

The rest of his team has talks planned with their counterparts in the U.S. government to discuss cooperation on everything from education to health, employment to agriculture.

The visit comes at a critical time in relations between Kabul and Washington, which is pouring billions of dollars of aid and thousands of U.S. troops into the country.

Kazai's show of government unity and openness toward the United States is being seen as the Afghan leader's attempt to improve his reputation with his government's most important ally.

Anti-West Tirade

Karzai shocked U.S. officials just a few weeks ago when he accused the United Nations and international community of perpetrating a "vast fraud" in last summer's contested elections, which he won. He also threatened to join the Taliban if foreign interference in his government continued, according to several lawmakers present for his remarks.

Tensions ran so high that at one point there was talk of the White House canceling its invitation to Karzai to come to Washington. Speaking on April 7, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "We certainly would evaluate whatever continued or further remarks President Karzai makes as to whether that's constructive, to have such a meeting."

Tempers cooled as each side presumably calculated the cost of prolonged bad relations. Without Karzai's full cooperation on governance and security objectives, Obama can't meet his goal of beginning a troop withdrawal next summer. Without Obama's support, Karzai's plan to hold reconciliation and reintegration talks with the Taliban will lack legitimacy and likely fail.

Washington is so keen to repair the frayed relationship that Obama bluntly instructed his national security team to publicly show Karzai respect during this visit, according to "The Washington Post." The newspaper quoted senior administration officials as saying that "during a White House meeting [in April] Obama made it clear that Karzai is the chief U.S. partner in the war effort, which will be reflected in his visit to Washington."

Coming several months after both Karzai's election to a second five-year term and the start of a new White House strategy aimed at beginning troop withdrawals next summer, White House officials have cast the visit as an opportunity for both sides to take stock of successes, identify areas of concern, and renew their strategic partnership in pursuit of mutual goals for the country.

Taking Stock

At a briefing for reporters on May 7, the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes, emphasized the potential, not the problems, in the relationship, saying, "There is a clear set of shared objectives between the Afghan government and the United States."

"This can be an important opportunity for the two sides to come together and take stock of where we are, take stock of what the next steps are, what additional steps might be taken, what additional support the international community can provide, and what additional steps the Afghans can take to implement their own plans as it relates to improving governance and security in their country," Rhodes added.

One of the White House's priorities in its talks with Karzai will be evaluating what progress he's made against corruption. Obama has made the issue one of his key benchmarks of progress in improving Afghanistan's governance.

Administration officials point to "positive steps, both at the national level and the sub-national level." But they also say more needs to be done.

Speaking May 10 in Washington to a group of policy scholars and journalists, Karzai spokesman Wahid Omar said the Afghan delegation "will definitely commit [itself] to doing more when it comes to [combating] corruption."

Peace Jirga

But by far, the centerpiece of Karzai's visit will be discussion with U.S. officials of the peace jirga he has planned for late May in Kabul.

More than a few observers see the ultimate goal of his visit as winning U.S. support for a process that could allow Taliban "foot soldiers" to lay down their arms and rejoin Afghan society, and might even see Taliban leaders joining the government.

The United States supports Karzai's efforts to reach out to members of the Taliban, but there are strict caveats to that support.

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry said on May 10 that the two governments agreed on what conditions must be met by fighters who want to leave the insurgency. "I think there's clarity right now between our two governments on what the common principles should be as Afghanistan moves forward with reconciliation," Eikenberry said. "Those principles, I think, are well known."

They include renouncing the use of violence, severing all ties with Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups, and embracing the Afghan Constitution and the full range of freedoms and rights it enshrines. The White House has made a point of emphasizing that that includes women's rights, which Secretary Clinton has made a priority at the State Department.

Differences Remain

Karzai spokesman Omar said Kabul and Washington were "100 percent" in agreement on how Taliban fighters might be reintegrated into society, but that differences remained on how a peace process with the group's commanders might work.

"We have issues to discuss when it comes to reconciliation and we definitely know the concerns of our international partners," he said. "The concerns which exist here in the United States as to who we are talking to, what the conditions will be, what the effect on women will be when it comes to reconciliation, and all the other questions that do not put in question the program as a whole, but the bits and pieces, which can be discussed and which can be resolved."

Omar said the Afghan delegation plans to raise other points of disagreement with U.S. officials, including the level of civilian casualties and the need to speed up the transfer of U.S.-run detention facilities -- like the infamous Bagram prison -- to Afghan authorities.

But the overall focus of the trip, he said, would be "looking into the future rather than...the past."

"We would like to be frank here in Washington and however nice we can be, we will raise issues that we believe if addressed jointly by Afghanistan and the United States, will help us strengthen this partnership," Omar said.

Karzai's last official day in Washington will include meetings with members of Congress, which is currently debating whether to approve another $33 billion in spending in Afghanistan.

Considering that lawmakers from both political parties were vocal in their disapproval of Karzai's inflammatory rhetoric last month, however, his reception on Capitol Hill is likely to be a cool one.