WASHINGTON - Afghan President Hamid Karzai has arrived in Washington with an
entourage that includes 12 cabinet ministers and several other high ranking
officials from his government. Beginning on Tuesday and for the next three
days, Karzai will spend several hours in meetings with top administration
officials, most notably Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack
The rest of his team will sit down to talks with their counterparts in the US
government to discuss cooperation on everything from education and health to
employment and agriculture.
The visit comes at a critical time in relations between Kabul and Washington,
which is pouring billions of dollars of aid and thousands of US troops into the
country. Karzai's show of
government unity and openness toward the United States is being seen as the
Afghan leader's attempt to improve his reputation with his government's most
Karzai shocked US officials just a few weeks ago when he accused the United
Nations and international community of perpetrating a "vast fraud" in last
summer's contested elections, which he won. He also threatened to join the
Taliban if foreign interference in his government continued, according to
several lawmakers present for his remarks.
Tensions ran so high that at one point there was talk of the White House
canceling its invitation to Karzai to come to Washington. Speaking on April 7,
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "We certainly would evaluate whatever
continued or further remarks President Karzai makes as to whether that's
constructive, to have such a meeting."
Tempers cooled as each side presumably calculated the cost of prolonged bad
relations. Without Karzai's full cooperation on governance and security
objectives, Obama can't meet his goal of beginning a troop withdrawal next
summer. Without Obama's support, Karzai's plan to hold reconciliation and
reintegration talks with the Taliban will lack legitimacy and likely fail.
Washington is so keen to repair the frayed relationship that Obama bluntly
instructed his national security team to publicly show Karzai respect during
this visit, according to the Washington Post. The newspaper quoted senior
administration officials as saying that "during a White House meeting [in
April] Obama made it clear that Karzai is the chief US partner in the war
effort, which will be reflected in his visit to Washington."
Coming several months after both Karzai's election to a second five-year term
and the start of a new White House strategy aimed at beginning troop
withdrawals next summer, White House officials have cast the visit as an
opportunity for both sides to take stock of successes, identify areas of
concern and renew their strategic partnership in pursuit of mutual goals for
At a briefing for reporters on May 7, White House Deputy National Security
Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes emphasized the potential, not
the problems, in the relationship, saying, "There is a clear set of shared
objectives between the Afghan government and the United States."
"This can be an important opportunity for the two sides to come together and
take stock of where we are, take stock of what the next steps are, what
additional steps might be taken, what additional support the international
community can provide, and what additional steps the Afghans can take to
implement their own plans as it relates to improving governance and security in
their country," Rhodes said.
One of the White House's priorities in its talks with Karzai will be evaluating
what progress he's made against corruption. Obama has made the issue one of his
key benchmarks of progress in improving Afghanistan's governance.
Administration officials point to "positive steps, both at the national level
and the sub-national level". But they also say more needs to be done.
Speaking on May 10 in Washington to a group of policy scholars and journalists,
Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said the Afghan delegation "will definitely commit
[itself] to doing more when it comes to [combating] corruption".
But by far, the centerpiece of Karzai's visit will be discussion with US
officials of the peace jirga (council) he has planned for late May in
More than a few observers see the ultimate goal of his visit as winning US
support for a process that could allow Taliban "foot soldiers" to lay down
their arms and rejoin Afghan society, and might even see Taliban leaders
joining the government.
The United States supports Karzai's efforts to reach out to members of the
Taliban, but there are strict caveats to that support.
United States Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry said on May 10 that the
two governments agree on what conditions must be met by fighters who want to
leave the insurgency. "I think there's clarity right now between our two
governments on what the common principles should be as Afghanistan moves
forward with reconciliation," Eikenberry said. "Those principles, I think are
They include renouncing the use of violence, severing all ties with al-Qaeda or
other terrorist groups, and embracing the Afghan constitution and the full
range of freedoms and rights it enshrines. The White House has made a point of
emphasizing that that includes women's rights, which Secretary Clinton has made
a priority at the State Department.
Karzai spokesman Omar said Kabul and Washington are "100 percent" in agreement
on how Taliban fighters might be reintegrated into society but that differences
remain on how a peace process with the group's commanders might work.
"We have issues to discuss when it comes to reconciliation, and we definitely
know the concerns of our international partners," he said. "The concerns which
exist here in the United States as to who we are talking to, what the
conditions will be, what the effect on women will be when it comes to
reconciliation, and all the other questions that do not put in question the
program as a whole, but the bits and pieces, which can be discussed and which
can be resolved."
Omar said the Afghan delegation plans to raise other points of disagreement
with US officials, including the level of civilian casualties and the need to
speed up the transfer of US-run detention facilities - like the infamous Bagram
prison - to Afghan authorities.
But the overall focus of the trip, he said, would be "looking into the future
rather than ... the past."
"We would like to be frank here in Washington and however nice we can be, we
will raise issues that we believe if addressed jointly by Afghanistan and the
United States will help us strengthen this partnership," Omar said.
Karzai's last official day in Washington will include meetings with members of
congress, which is currently debating whether to approve another US$33 billion
in spending in Afghanistan.
Considering that lawmakers from both political parties were vocal in their
disapproval of Karzai's inflammatory rhetoric last month, however, his
reception on Capitol Hill is likely to be a cool one.