Karzai's US visit yields cold comfort

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.

President Barack Obama tried gamely to downplay the earlier spats between Washington and Kabul, saying that the disagreements between the two sides had been “overstated.”

But given the publicity that surrounded the war of words in which Karzai reportedly threatened to join the Taliban and the White House press secretary told reporters that Karzai’s visit was under question, the two sides could not entirely ignore the fracas.

“Now, obviously, there are going to be tensions in such a complicated, difficult environment,” said Obama during the pair’s joint press briefing on Wednesday.

The topic of reconciliation with the Taliban also did not move off ground zero.

The U.S. position has always been that any Taliban who renounce violence, break with their ideological mentors and accept the Afghan constitution are welcome to a seat at the negotiating table.

This has always been a non-starter with the armed opposition, who want any negotiations to address some of their conditions — such as the withdrawal of foreign troops.

As Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister, put it in an earlier interview with GlobalPost: “Once we have put down their arms and accepted the constitution, what is there to talk about? That is not negotiation, that is surrender.”

Karzai was hoping for something a bit more substantive in advance of his Peace Jirga in Kabul in late May, during which he will try to forge a broad consensus among the Afghan people on the way to a negotiated settlement with the insurgency.

Instead, he got warmed-over assurances that the United States firmly supported peace — on its previously stated terms, of course.

Washington was also lobbying Karzai to gain firmer support for the upcoming offensive in Kandahar, now commonly referred to as “the decisive battle of war.” Operation Omid is unpopular in Afghanistan, and Karzai has publicly assured tribal elders in the south that the offensive will not be forced upon them. But the United States is anxious to show that the troop surge is working, that progress is being made, and that the Taliban are in retreat.

So Omid is proceeding on schedule; the tactic seems to be to stop calling it an “operation.” Now it is a “process,” a “rising tide of security” — any wording that disguises the reality of 23,000 international and Afghan troops descending on Kandahar with the intent of dislodging the Taliban.

Probably the most worrying aspect of the visit, in the Afghan president’s eyes, were frequent references to the proposed U.S. drawdown of forces, set to begin in July 2011. Many observers have traced Karzai’s new eagerness to reach an agreement with the Taliban to his angst over being left to deal with them on his own once his American backers go home.

The stated plan has been to hand over security to Afghanistan’s own security forces — to “make Afghanistan masters in their own house” according to a NATO summit in Tallinn last month.

But police training has stalled badly, and even the army is not up to snuff, despite Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s remarks during a press briefing that the growth of the Afghan national army and police was “largely on track.”

In the end, the visit was an extended exercise in public relations, designed to reassure audiences in Washington and Kabul that the war is being won, the end is in sight, victory is in the air.

But judging by the reaction in Kabul, the message fell flat.

“It was a fine trip,” said political analyst Ahmad Saeedi. “On the surface. But in fact nothing has changed. Everything will be exactly the same as it was. Karzai hoped to achieve political support for his Jirga; he wanted the Americans to deal with him as the legitimate leader of the government. But the Americans had their own agenda; they wanted to tell Karzai that he had to bring changes in his administration. Behind the scenes there were some very tough talks.”

Independent newspaper Arman-e-Milli was also skeptical about the visit, and generally pessimistic about the future.

“The trip was symbolic,” said the editorial in Friday’s paper. “No one believes that there will be substantive changes after Karzai returns. The Taliban will continue their suicide attacks, the U.S. Special Forces will continue their house searches and night raids. Karzai will hug [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad even more tightly and call him 'brother.' Drug production will continue, addiction will increase. This trip will not change the principles that underpin the policy in Afghanistan. A few days after the president returns, the whole trip will be forgotten.”