Obama and Karzai: A Relationship in Progress

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Jim Young / Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama inspects a guard of honor with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul on March 28, 2010

"Last question" had already been called in the conference room on Air Force One high above the Caspian Sea, Sunday, on its secret journey to Kabul. But a reporter for National Public Radio wanted to squeeze in one more: When had Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai learned that Obama would be dropping in for an unscheduled visit?

"Probably, right about now," National Security Adviser James Jones answered, causing a ripple of laughter. It was a telling moment. Jones had just finished briefing reporters on what he described as an improving relationship with Karzai, and an improving security situation in the region. Yet he could still joke, in an on-the-record briefing, about how little trust there was between the two governments. After all, American news organizations had been discreetly alerted to the President's planned trip to Afghanistan more than two days earlier; the Afghan government was informed just until a couple hours before landing.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs later insisted that the Afghan government had in fact been notified at roughly the same time as the traveling press, on the prior Thursday. But the underlying tension between Washington and Kabul signaled by Jones cast-off quip — a lingering suspicion that still colors the cooperation between two allies brought together by circumstance — set the mood for Obama's two-hour visit to Afghanistan's presidential palace.

In a joint meeting with reporters after the meeting, Obama emphasized the positive aspect of the relationship, only hinting at the problems that remain. "I want to send a strong message that the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan is going to continue," Obama said. "We have seen already progress with respect to the military campaign against extremism in the region. But we also want to continue to make progress on the civilian process of ensuring that agricultural production, energy production, good governance, rule of law, anticorruption efforts."

A senior Administration official traveling with Obama later told reporters that it was not an easy relationship to explain. "I don't think it's that everything is perfect, and I don't think it's just a question of us grasping at little steps," the official said. But this same official described the delicate diplomatic dance that was going on between the two nations as the U.S. implements a counterinsurgency strategy whose success depends largely on the ability of the Karzai government to win the backing of its own people.

On March 15, Obama had discussed issues such as corruption and governance in a secure video teleconference with Karzai linking the White House Situation Room to Kabul. At the time, Obama made a number of requests of his Afghan partner. "The President feels that they have made good progress, and as a result asked President Karzai to come visit the United States in May," the official said on Sunday, in a briefing in Kabul.

But White House officials were vague about just how much progress had been made. As recently as last November, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry had cabled Washington with a blistering assessment of Karzai, describing the Afghan President as "not an adequate strategic partner." The secret cable, later leaked to the media, added that "Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development."

During the flight, another reporter asked Jones whether the White House now views Karzai as a partner "adequate" to the task in Afghanistan. "Well, I think he is our partner," Jones replied. "We want to see the Afghans succeed. This is extremely important." But Jones left little doubt that Karzai's full cooperation with the U.S. was hardly a foregone conclusion. "Both Presidents have to be on the same wavelength," Jones continued. "And President Obama has been very clear with President Karzai as to what are the elements that he has to bring about on the national government level and also the sub-national government level so that this whole thing works."

The two men will follow up on May 12, when Karzai is expected to visit the White House for another meeting with Obama. Unlike the last meeting, Karzai will have significant advance notice to prepare for that discussion.