Karzai charm offensive may not be enough

By Sue Pleming – Analysis

WASHINGTON (BestGrowthStock) – He lunched at the White House, was feted at the State Department and dined with the vice president but will the special treatment lavished on Afghan President Hamid Karzai affect how he governs?

What is key will be whether the much-touted good atmospherics during Karzai’s four-day trip to Washington will speed up what President Barack Obama calls “slow and steady” progress in Afghanistan.

“What is being said in public is anodyne and choreographed. Talk is good but it is the actions that are taken that will be important,” said Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank in Washington.

The handshakes and uneasy smiles in the White House East Room on Wednesday contrasted with the war of words in recent weeks but that does not mean the Obama administration or U.S. lawmakers, who hold the purse strings, are fully confident.

Questions persist in Congress, and quietly among U.S. officials, over whether the Afghan leader can be counted on to help momentum shift enough to allow U.S. troops to start coming home in July 2011 as promised.

“He needs to work with the U.S. in both word and deed to promote economic development, build the Afghan security forces, combat extremists, tackle the drug trade, eliminate corruption, and improve systems of governance,” said Senator Ted Kaufman, who was in Afghanistan last month.

Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said Obama’s better ties with Karzai were just a start.

“If the situation improves, I think things in terms of relations between Karzai and the administration will also improve. But if they get worse or stay the same then I think we will come back to the same contentiousness,” Khalilzad told PBS.

TIPTOED AROUND ISSUES

The Obama administration carefully planned Karzai’s trip so there would be limited contact with reporters who might ask delicate questions at a time when U.S. public support for the nine-year war is precarious.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were urged by the Obama administration not to come down too hard on Karzai and to offer praise rather than criticism, said one congressional source.

In her public appearances with Karzai, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was effusive in her praise.

“We are your friend,” Clinton said at a reception for the Afghan leader.

“You’re so good with words and kind and the hospitality that you provide provides reassurance to the greatest of skeptics as well that Afghanistan is a friend,” said Karzai.

Obama did not dwell on problem areas such as corruption and lack of governance except to say that Karzai had worked hard but more needed to be done.

Senior U.S. officials cite the lack of governance in Afghanistan as a core challenge in turning around the war and military commanders bemoan the level of corruption.

Congress wants clear benchmarks to measure progress in Afghanistan and to see greater efforts to tackle corruption but pressure from the Obama administration will now be made in a quieter, more respectful way.

“What they have decided is that the larger goal of stabilizing Afghanistan is more important than the corruption issue and some other issues,” said Lisa Curtis, an Afghanistan expert with the Heritage Foundation.

The plan is to live with the president now in Afghanistan and make the most of it, much as happened in Iraq when the Bush administration was exasperated with President Nuri al-Maliki but decided to back him anyway.

“Almost by definition, counterinsurgency implies a problematic host government. If the local leadership were effective already, there would be no insurgency to fight,” said Stephen Biddle from the Council on Foreign Relations.

WORKING AROUND KARZAI

The issue is not whether Karzai is an adequate partner but how to make his government into one, said Biddle, adding Washington should continue to use “sticks” against the Afghan leader but just in private.

The Obama administration is already working around Karzai where need be, targeting ministers seen as more competent in trying to boost capacity in the government.

Most of Karzai’s cabinet was in Washington this week and the United States has also been leaning on opposition politician Ashraf Ghani, who was in the U.S. capital days before Karzai to prepare for meetings.

“We see Ghani as a sort of interlocutor here,” said one senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named.

One of the key issues where both sides are still trying to find common ground is how far Karzai will go in reconciling members of the Taliban, set to be discussed at a peace “jirga” or consultative meeting in Kabul on May 29.

Obama repeated U.S. demands that militants brought back into the fold need to renounce violence and any ties to al Qaeda as well as respect the constitution, including women’s rights.

He also said there must be momentum on the battlefield for the Taliban to lay down their arms.

“The timing, how the reconciliation process works … is in part going to be dependent on our success in terms of carrying out our mission there,” Obama said at his news conference.

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(Editing by John O’Callaghan)

Karzai charm offensive may not be enough