Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived in Washington on Monday for a four-day visit designed to publicly turn the page in the often-testy relationship between his government and the Obama administration and to solidify a working partnership between them.
"This is not a trip about deliverables," such as economic or military agreements, a senior administration official said. Instead, US officials said, they will push Karzai to make good on promises he has made to address government corruption and accountability, and work to influence his plans for a national peace conference late this month.
For his part, Karzai is seeking clarification of President Obama's plans to begin withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan by mid-2011, as well as an outline of a long-term economic and security relationship. Afghan officials said Karzai also plans to emphasize ongoing concerns over civilian casualties caused by US and NATO military operations in Afghanistan.
Karzai spokesman Waheed Omer said Monday that he expected "frank exchanges." In a media briefing, Omer said that "however nice we can be, we will raise issues that we believe if addressed jointly by Afghanistan and the US will help us strengthen this partnership and bring peace and security."
Karzai, who arrived from Afghanistan on a US Air Force plane, is accompanied by about 20 cabinet ministers and other senior officials in his government. After a Monday night dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Afghan delegation will attend an all-day series of meetings at the State Department on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Karzai will meet with Obama at the White House, and Vice President Biden will host a dinner for him. On Thursday, Karzai will meet with congressional leaders and make a public appearance at the US Institute of Peace.
Tensions in the administration's relationship with Karzai began a year ago, when US officials sought to find a viable candidate to challenge him in presidential elections held in August. Karzai eventually won another five-year term amid widespread allegations of fraud. Although the administration pledged a renewed partnership, sharp exchanges over the last several months have tested both sides.
Although recognizing the need to maintain good relations with Karzai, the administration hopes to dilute his authority and enhance regional stability in Afghanistan by strengthening government at the district and local levels. Strong local governance is viewed as crucial to the success of an upcoming offensive in the southern city of Kandahar a Taliban stronghold that US Gen. Stanley McChrystal said Monday would be "decisive" in the overall Afghanistan war effort.
Karzai's visit also comes amid reports of dissension between McChrystal, the overall commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired three-star general who once had McChrystal's job. As Obama was formulating his new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy late last summer, Eikenberry sent a pair of diplomatic cables to Washington questioning Karzai's competence and whether any strategy could succeed as long as he was president.
Asked at a White House media briefing Monday whether his concerns had been allayed, Eikenberry said that "Karzai is the elected president of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a close friend and ally, and of course I highly respect President Karzai in that capacity."
McChrystal, who also spoke at the briefing, tried to head off questions about reports of personal and policy disagreements between him and Eikenberry, opening his remarks by saying: "It's good to be here today with my colleague and friend Karl Eikenberry."
Eikenberry returned the favor, beginning his statement by complimenting the remarks of "my friend and partner in Afghanistan over many years, General Stan McChrystal."
The two have disagreed, among other things, on whether to address Afghanistan's energy and agricultural problems with quick-fix solutions proposed by the military or more sustainable projects, favored by Eikenberry, that take longer to show results. In a report released Monday, the Center for American Progress, generally supportive of the administration, charged that "officials are paying too little attention to the sustainability of the programs and the Afghan state we are achieving."
The center, staffed by many former Obama campaign advisers, said that the Karzai government "operates on a highly centralized patronage model in which power and resources are channeled through Hamid Karzai's personal and political allies" in a system that "invites corruption, rent-seeking, and a hemorrhaging of domestic legitimacy."
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