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Karzai's Political Juggling Act Heads To Washington

President Hamid Karzai talks to U.S. soldiers near Kabul. In Washington, he is expected to focus on winning U.S. backing for his reconciliation policies.
Royal culture lives on in Arg-e Shahi, the "Citadel of the King" that once housed the Afghan monarchy and now serves as the presidential palace in Kabul.

Its current resident, President Hamid Karzai, is no monarch, but much of the atmosphere behind the complex's walls is decidedly regal.

Nearly every day, Karzai holds court with Afghans from all walks of life. In imposing high-ceiling rooms, or under shady trees on the palace grounds, petitioners from across the mountainous country plea to Raees Sahib -- Mr. President -- to protect them from Taliban bullets and NATO bombs.

In spite of the limits on his presidential powers, Karzai offers assurances to his "estranged" brothers as the Arg echoes with arguments about how to convince Taliban and other Afghan insurgent leaders to lay down their weapons and join electoral politics in Afghanistan, or to go into exile away from the battlefield.

The promises made during those strategic discussions weigh heavily on Karzai's mind as he presents his reintegration plan for insurgents to U.S. policymakers.

The Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program, according to an advance copy obtained by RFE/RL, includes incentives to lure both common foot soldiers and leaders away from the complex insurgency in Afghanistan.

Peace Is ‘A Necessity’

A key part of Karzai's agenda, observers suggest, is convincing U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to back reconciliation with Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbudin Hekmatyar, who was declared a terrorist by the United States in 2003 and whose followers have even attempted to assassinate Karzai.

Shukaria Barakzai, an independent and outspoken member of Afghanistan's lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, predicts that the Afghan president will push Washington to recognize the realities of Afghan policy.

"Peace is a necessity in Afghanistan, not a luxury," Barakzai says, suggesting that every effort must be made toward reconciliation with those groups now working against Kabul. Barakzai cites herself, as a bereaved mother, as an example: She works today with lawmakers associated with factions whose infighting in Kabul in the mid-1990s led to the loss of her two young children.

"People want peace and stability. As a mother I have suffered the loss of a son and a daughter during the reign of [former President] Burhannudin Rabbani," she says. "But today I sit and work with the same people [from one-time warring factions] as a lawmaker. This is because I want to prevent myself from going through the agony of losing what is dear to me once again."

Traveling with his entire cabinet, Karzai is expected to focus on mending fences with the Obama administration while trying to convey an image as a reliable partner. Western diplomatic sources in Kabul suggest that the two sides will discuss "red lines," meaning establishing the limits of behavior for insurgent commanders who want to reconcile with the government.

Focus On Hekmatyar

At the top of the list will be whether individuals and groups seeking to reconcile with Kabul are ready to break all ties with Al-Qaeda, accept the Afghan constitution, and renounce the violent pursuit of their political demands.

The actions of factional leader Hekmatyar will be a key litmus test for judging the success and failure of such red lines.

His representatives publically met with Karzai and senior UN officials in late March, and even offered to support Karzai's government if Western troops were to gradually withdraw. Earlier this year, he distanced himself from Al-Qaeda, whose leaders he has known for decades.

Hekmatyar, briefly a prime minister in a failed post-communist government in the mid-1990s, is better known in Washington for having offered rewards for the killing of American soldiers after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Today, the reality is that many of his past associates are now Karzai cabinet members, advisers, provincial governors, and lawmakers.

At the same time, Kabul still lacks a clear strategy about how to negotiate with the Taliban. The group's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, has made the withdrawal of Western forces a precondition to any possible accommodation with the Karzai government. And the government's trump card, Taliban operational chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar -- with whom Kabul was reportedly holding peace talks -- was lost with his arrest in Pakistan in February.

Those realities, some insiders within Karzai's administration acknowledge, have led them to work hard to convince Karzai to try to sell reconciliation with Hekmatyar as a major step forward.

Lawmaker Barakzai says Karzai is trying to correct mistakes made over the past nine years, when some warring factions were generously rewarded with powerful positions in Kabul, while others were excluded and labeled as "criminals."

And this, she says, leads her to overlook his shortcomings and support Karzai's efforts to reach out to insurgent leaders. "The people of Afghanistan cannot accept that their government and the [lives] of their fellow citizens are not respected," she says.

"Afghans are an exhausted people and they want [the United States] to understand Afghanistan's perspective about every conflict in their country -- including the international conflict and the war against terrorism inside Afghanistan."

Importance Of Governance

Lawmaker Kabir Ranjbar says that compared to the Taliban, Hezb-e Islami has had a limited military role in the insurgency over the past eight years, in large part because many of its former cadres were won over to the other side, with some joining the Afghan cabinet, administration, legislature, and judiciary.

This, Ranjbar says, should make it easier for Karzai to sell reconciliation with Hekmatyar in Washington. "Karzai's main demand will be to gain backing for this” reconciliation with Hekmatyar, he says.

"On the other hand, he will push for the acceptance of his demands relating to his talks with the Taliban," Ranjbar adds. "Only time will tell if those demands will be accepted. But I doubt that they will get the kind of backing that talks with Hezb-e Islami will garner."

Later this month, the Karzai administration is expected to hold a National Consultative Peace Jirga, a major gathering of tribal leaders and politicians from across Afghanistan, in search of backing for his administration's reconciliation efforts. The gathering, delayed for a month, is expected to approve the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program.

Ranjbar says that what makes the Taliban insurgency potent is its appeal to disgruntled Afghans who have joined rebel ranks because of the excesses, corruption, and injustices suffered at the hands of local powerbrokers -- among them Karzai allies or senior figures in his administration.

He suggests that while the Obama administration is likely to help buy some of his ideas about reaching out to the insurgent leaders, putting his house in order is Karzai's responsibility and the key to stability in the country.

"The Afghan people and the international community understand that Karzai's hands and feet are bound in the current environment," he says. "He is unable to cleanse his administration to facilitate the rule of law in Afghanistan."

Gathering political momentum in Afghanistan is expected to peak this summer with the peace council and major donor conference -- and these events are likely to boost Karzai's standing. But in the long term, he can earn public trust only once Afghans see him moving toward more transparency and accountability.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.