The Obama administration sought Monday to smooth over past differences with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who arrived here on a four-day mission to try to persuade Americans that his country is not a lost cause.
At a White House news conference, Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, 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," Eikenberry said.
After this week's meetings, "I think we're going to emerge with even better alignment," he said.
Significant improvements in the U.S. and NATO military and civilian efforts have been made during the past year, Eikenberry noted.
"We're confident that we're much better postured to help deliver the progress needed in the months ahead," the ambassador said.
Appearing with Eikenberry, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told reporters 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 and a large delegation of Cabinet ministers arrived for the Karzai government's widest engagement with U.S. leaders since his re-election in a flawed vote last year.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was visiting Afghanistan on Sunday, said Karzai will be received in Washington with "great dignity, great friendship and great candor."
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 in 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, Karzai's outreach to disaffected tribes and potential insurgents, and the difficult counterinsurgency effort already under way in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province.
He meets with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday, and President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
There is no formal state dinner at the White House, but a dinner hosted by 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.
McChrystal and Eikenberry arrived ahead of Karzai as part of a schedule so tightly scripted by the White House that some senior Pentagon officials weren't told of plans for the general to hold a White House press conference on Monday. They learned from reporters after the white House announced it.
The 8-year-old Afghan war is one main topic for Karzai's meetings with Obama and others. Pentagon officials say they see signs of progress this spring, but the war remains stalemated in key Taliban-allied districts and a U.S.-led military push across southern Afghanistan is off to a slower start than hoped.
The postwar future of Afghanistan is another. Obama intends to begin withdrawing U.S. forces next summer, although few people think the war will be won by then.
No amount of reassurance from Obama is likely to change Karzai's view that the U.S. has put a stopwatch on the conflict, bolstering the resolve of the insurgents.
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.
"They wanted a servant government," Karzai complained shortly after Obama made a surprise visit to Kabul in late March. Both leaders said at the time that their meeting went well, but Karzai later bristled at remarks about the trip from U.S. officials that he found insulting.
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."
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