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Karzai's US visit yields cold comfort

Afghan president's four-day Washington visit realized little for host or guest. So where to now?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talk while walking in a private Georgetown garden in Washington, May 13, 2010. (Reuters)

KABUL, Afghanistan — The glittering receptions, the warm smiles, the high-level talks — all the diplomatic accoutrements of President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington pointed to a renewed relationship between firm friends, albeit ones who have had a bit of a dust-up.

But underneath the bonhomie, tensions simmered as fiercely as ever. Nothing in the four-day political show could conceal the very real cracks in the U.S.-Afghan “partnership,” which increasingly seems to be based more on codependency than on any shared vision or common purpose.

The ostensible goal of the visit was to brush up Karzai’s image in the United States, where recent polls show that Americans are feeling more and more reluctant to continue supporting the war in Afghanistan. The United States needed to demonstrate that earlier criticism of the Afghan president had been put aside.

The Afghan president was also intent on securing Washington’s commitment to negotiations with the Taliban, a topic that will be the subject of a Peace Jirga in Kabul later this month.

Despite brave attempts to put the best possible face on the proceedings, the Obama-Karzai “summit” yielded little in the way of real progress, and failed to fully rehabilitate the problematic Afghan president, either at home or abroad.

The U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, was perhaps the most obvious Karzai-skeptic in the mix. During a teeth-gritting press briefing at the White House on the first day of the visit, he repeatedly tried to dodge questions about his previous reservations regarding the Afghan president.

In a classified cable leaked to the media in January, Eikenberry called into question the entire Obama strategy, basing his criticism in large part on the fact that the Afghan president was not an “adequate strategic partner.”

Eikenberry, a retired general who had a close relationship to the Afghan president in his former capacity as commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, would not say outright that he had laid his earlier fears to rest. The closest he would come, before Press Secretary Robert Gibbs stepped in to save him, was to acknowledge that “President Karzai is the — he’s the elected president of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a close friend and ally, and of course I highly respect President Karzai in that capacity,”

Talk about damning with faint praise.