President Barack Obama's tone in Kabul was all business as he hammered home his theme that the Afghans need to do more to fight corruption and reform government to defeat the Taliban.
The arm's-length approach was the administration's latest attempt to strike the right balance in dealing with President Hamid Karzai. Although the US believes Karzai is a flawed leader, it cannot afford to alienate him because he is key to a successful American exit from the war.
Former President George W. Bush established a more personal relationship with Karzai. In contrast, Obama was critical of Karzai from the start, stating last December when he announced his troop surge that "the days of providing a blank check are over." Neither strategy worked well. Bush's approach failed to push Karzai toward more effective governance. Obama's criticism angered Karzai, feeding fears that the Americans were trying to undermine him. The Afghan president's visits in recent weeks to neighboring China and Iran show that he has options for support from other countries.
Such blunt criticism from the United States now appears more measured.
A day after the visit, Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, described the two leaders' private meeting as cordial and dismissed reports that Obama flew to Kabul on Sunday to order a recalcitrant Karzai to get his government in line.
"Our relationship with the United States has gone through ups and downs," Omar said Monday. "At this point in time, there are more ups than downs. We have certain views about certain issues and they have certain views about certain issues. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we don't."
The new tone is only part of the administration's evolving approach toward Kabul. The US is now seeking to deal with the broader Afghan leadership _ not just Karzai.
It was the White House's insistence that Karzai's Cabinet later join the talks over a dinner of kebabs and rice that pointed to Obama's strategy of raising the clout of ministers favored by the West as a way to promote reform.
Ashraf Ghani, a respected former finance minister and World Bank official, described the meeting with the Cabinet and Afghan dignitaries as "very courteous and businesslike." "A foundation for strategic cooperation between the two countries has been clearly laid through this visit," Ghani said. Western diplomats briefed on the meetings said Obama worked to convince the Afghan officials that Afghanistan can count on a long-term commitment from the US despite the president's desire to start withdrawing American troops in July 2011 _ just 16 months from now. They said Obama also stressed that while there's been some progress, more work is needed to set up better local, provincial and central governments run by people picked for competence, not cronyism.
That's a message Afghanistan's small, urban, political class expected the American president to deliver. Many of them are also frustrated by the failures of their own government. "I'm sure he gave a very, very tough message, strong message to President Karzai that the US could not tolerate another dysfunctional government for the next five years and it's time for President Karzai to act," said Haroon Mir, director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies. "I think it was a message for Afghans that the U.S will remain committed to Afghanistan."
Obama might not be happy with the pace of progress in Afghanistan, but he also can't be seen as sending US troops to fight for a corrupt government. Public approval for his war strategy is on the rise, and Obama needs to maintain domestic support for the war at a time when the number of US troops killed in Afghanistan has roughly doubled in the first three months of this year, compared with the same period last year.
The latest Associated Press-GfK poll at the beginning of March found that 57 percent of Americans surveyed approved of Obama's handling of the war compared with 49 percent two months earlier. While Obama pressed the Afghans to battle graft, those briefed on the meeting said Karzai's Cabinet ministers told the president that they wanted to control more of the billions in international aid pouring into the country and direct the money to priority projects set by Afghanistan, not foreign capitals.
The Karzai government has long maintained that the US and other donors must share the blame for the lack of improvement in the daily lives of Afghans since foreigners control the purse strings. The government points to a Ministry of Finance report that says nearly 80 percent of the $36 billion in international aid spent in Afghanistan since the Taliban were toppled in late 2001 was disbursed by the donor countries themselves. The rest has moved through the Afghan treasury, but only $770 million of it has been placed fully at the discretion of the Afghan officials, the report said.
Donor nations have agreed to channel half the development aid through the ministries in the next two years, but only if Karzai curbs corruption and strengthens its public finance system. Karzai, who is expected to see Obama next on May 12 in Washington, has taken some steps since his fraud-stained re-election last year to combat corruption. But international observers and human rights activists have said such measures do not go far enough. The White House considers the fight against corruption key to winning the war. Success will come only if the Afghan people increasingly decide to back their own government rather than the Taliban.
In June, the joint NATO-Afghan force plans to move large numbers of troops into neighboring Kandahar province, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban, in hopes of further weakening the insurgency.
"We will be unable to succeed in Kandahar if we cannot eliminate a vast majority of corruption there and set up a legitimate governance structure," Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said Sunday. "We can succeed militarily, but it's not going to work" if local government cannot serve the people fairly.