Obama's Visit with Karzai: No Pat on the Back

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Charles Dharapak / AP

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, left, at the Presidential Palace in Kabul

The details of President Barack Obama's weekend conversation with Afghan President Hamid Karzai remain shrouded in secrecy, but it's unlikely that Obama would spend 26 hours aboard Air Force One flying to and from Kabul just to pat Karzai on the back. Not only is the White House frustrated over the rampant corruption in Karzai's government, whose ability to earn the support of its own people is the linchpin of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, it is also increasingly concerned over the Afghan leader's growing coziness with Iran.

Just hours before Obama touched down at Bagram air base on Sunday evening, Karzai had flown home from Tehran, where he celebrated the Persian new year with America's least favorite foreign leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That followed a day trip to Kabul earlier this month by the Iranian President.

At a joint press conference at Karzai's heavily guarded Arg Palace, both he and Obama put a traditional diplomatic gloss on their meeting. Obama said "the American people are encouraged by the progress that is being made," while Karzai lauded Washington's continued commitment to Afghanistan.

But earlier, aboard Air Force One, National Security Adviser James Jones gave a grittier briefing to reporters, telling them that Obama wanted Karzai to "understand that in his second term, there are certain things that have not been paid attention to, almost since Day One." To win the elections, marred by fraud, Karzai had to make deals with several unsavory warlords, who are once again represented in his Cabinet. Opposition figures say that these warlords are running their government departments like personal cash machines. Rather than dining alone on rice and kebabs with Karzai at the palace, Obama insisted on being joined by Afghan Cabinet ministers — including a few technocrats trusted by the U.S. but not by Karzai — to drive home the anticorruption message.

White House annoyance at Karzai is underscored by the rising U.S. casualty figures in Afghanistan: in the first three months of this year, 83 American servicemen were killed, nearly double last year's toll during the same period. U.S. diplomats and military commanders in Kabul fear that the gains made against the Taliban, at a heavy cost in NATO and American sacrifices, will be wasted unless Karzai changes his ways and delivers good governance to his people.

Karzai had enjoyed cordial relations with former President George W. Bush, but Obama's team of Afghan advisers came in believing that the President, who showed little skill or enthusiasm for reining in the warlords and corrupt technocrats, was part of the problem rather than the solution. Karzai's mistrust of Washington grew during last fall's presidential campaign, when he became convinced — with good reason — that U.S. State Department officials were mounting a last-minute charge to champion other candidates.

Karzai is also at odds with the Obama Administration over how to pursue the planned reconciliation outreach to the insurgents. The Afghan leader insists that such efforts will only bring peace if they include negotiations with senior Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar, but right now the U.S. insists that outreach efforts must be confined to peeling off what it calls the "accidental terrorists" — those who joined the Taliban for money or as a result of tribal connections — while continuing to hunt down the pro-al-Qaeda leaders of the Afghan insurgency, which would include Mullah Omar.

Palace insiders say that before Obama's surprise visit, Afghan-U.S. relations had strained to the point where Karzai would speak to only three Americans: Ambassador Karl Eikenberry; General Stanley McChrystal, commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan; and the unnamed CIA station chief. Of those three, Karzai is said to trust only the CIA chief, who reportedly led the special-forces team that protected Karzai on his first forays into southern Afghanistan to turn the Pashtun tribes against Taliban rule. Karzai is said to be leery of Eikenberry, ever since the media leaked the contents of cables in which the ambassador frankly cataloged what he considered to be Karzai's many failings. Palace aides complain that McChrystal chooses to work around Karzai, whenever possible, dealing directly with governors and provincial officials.

Now the hope is that Obama's tact and personal touch may have succeeded in patching up the running feuds between the Afghan leader and the top U.S. representatives in Kabul. For better or worse, Obama and Karzai are stuck with each other, and they will need each other's help if they are ever going to repair Afghanistan to the point that U.S. troops can starting heading back home.