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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?

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.”