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Karzai may face hostile audience in US Congress

Once hailed as a hero in the US Congress, Afghan President Hamid Karzai may find the welcome mat a bit smaller when he visits Washington next week.
Reuters | By HT Correspondent, Washington
UPDATED ON MAY 06, 2010 10:53 AM IST

Once hailed as a hero in the US Congress, Afghan President Hamid Karzai may find the welcome mat a bit smaller when he visits Washington next week.

Karzai, whose recent behavior rankled both US political parties, has some explaining to do if he wants Congress to see him as a credible ally whose government is worth the continued cost of the Afghan war, some US lawmakers say.

President Barack Obama has asked Congress to approve $33 billion more to help fund 30,000 additional US forces this year, and $4.5 billion for related foreign aid and civilian operations directed by the State Department.

But this request is languishing on Capitol Hill amid work on other domestic priorities and scarce budget resources.

"He has a major task ahead of him to convince the Congress that he has the capacity and commitment to be a reliable and committed partner in our efforts to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban," Democratic Representative Nita Lowey told Reuters.

She chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees spending on Obama's civilian "surge" in Afghanistan.

Back in 2004, lawmakers feted Karzai as the then-interim leader talked of building a new Afghanistan in an address to a joint meeting of Congress, an honor given to few foreigners.

More recently Karzai sparked Washington's ire by accusing Western countries and officials of perpetrating election fraud in Afghanistan, in comments the White House called disturbing and untrue. He also hosted Iranian President Ahmadinejad, no friend of Washington, in Kabul.

The Obama administration and Karzai have tried to smooth over their rift. But the Afghan leader, who arrives in Washington on Monday and will also see Obama, can expect to be questioned aggressively by lawmakers.

Obama administration officials hope Karzai's performance is enough to convince lawmakers they should approve the supplemental funds Obama wants for the Afghan war.

So far this year, Congress' Democratic leaders have been in no hurry to do so, letting Obama's war funding request wait while they work on issues like the economy and healthcare.

A small but vocal minority of the Democrats want the United States to leave Afghanistan.

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez said Karzai would be pressed over his allegations about last year's election.

"Certainly some of us are going to say to him, how is that you continue to say that in your country, and yet at the same time, you want us to be supportive?" said Menendez, a member of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee.

Republican Senator Susan Collins said Karzai should present a clear plan to deal with corruption.

"I have a lot of respect for Hamid Karzai, and I recognize the very difficult job that he has, but I'm very disappointed in the degree and extent of corruption, which allegedly involves, extends to even his own brother," Collins said.

Karzai's half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, is a headache for Pentagon planners charting a major offensive in Kandahar, where he is a provincial council chief. The brother has been accused of amassing a vast fortune from the drugs trade, intimidating rivals and having links to the CIA, charges he denies.

Some lawmakers looked at the plus side of the ledger of Washington's long-time ally. Karzai's efforts to re-integrate the "lower-level Taliban" deserve support, said Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

"He has taken a very forward-leaning position on that. If anything ... he's been the accelerator, and we've been the brake," said Levin, a Democrat.

"I think people want Karzai to succeed, and I think he has also tried to explain away some of those (controversial) comments as well," Levin said.

Republican Senator Richard Lugar said lawmakers should take a pragmatic approach, noting the United States has set a target date of July 2011 for troops to start leaving Afghanistan.

Lawmakers should ask Karzai "how much progress he is making in building an army and a police department that is going to be able to govern the country after we leave," said Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"And the rate of progress is extremely important right now given our time of departure," Lugar said.

One area of conflict between lawmakers and the Obama administration has been what they perceive as a lack of concrete details in measuring progress in the eight-year war.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton complained on Wednesday about a National Security Council metrics report on the war. "Congress cannot judge progress from glorified press releases," he said.

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