OBAMA'S WAR A New Approach to Karzai

Skeptical Administration Keeping Karzai at Arm's Length

"The Karzai government has not gotten out of the bunker." -- Barack Obama, July 2008 (2008 Photo From Afghan Presidential Palace Via Associated Press)
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By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Afghan President Hamid Karzai began talking as soon as his luncheon guests had taken their seats in his wood-paneled dining room at the presidential palace in Kabul, across a long table covered with platters of lamb and rice, baskets of flatbread, and glasses of pomegranate juice.

Security was improving, he declared, according to two people in the room. The cultivation of opium-producing poppies had been eliminated in many areas. The economy was on the upswing. He looked across the table at the most important of his visitors and pledged to work closely with a new U.S. administration.

"I'm at your disposal, Senator Obama."

The Democratic presidential candidate listened intently but revealed few of his own views about Afghanistan over the two-hour lunch last July. It was not until later that day, as a U.S. government jet flew him to Kuwait, that Barack Obama confided in his two traveling companions, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and then-Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).

Obama voiced concern that the situation was worse than Karzai had acknowledged, Hagel recalled. He "was not taken in," Hagel said, "by all of the happy talk."

Today, as the two leaders meet in the White House, that skepticism drives the administration's evolving policy toward Afghanistan and the battle against Taliban insurgents, a conflict whose outcome will in part define Obama's presidency.

In assessing the nearly eight-year struggle from Washington, senior members of Obama's national security team say Karzai has not done enough to address the grave challenges facing his nation. They deem him to be a mercurial and vacillating chieftain who has tolerated corruption and failed to project his authority beyond the gates of Kabul.

"On all fronts," said a senior U.S. official, "Hamid Karzai has plateaued as a leader."

At the same time, the consensus view among State Department, Pentagon and CIA officials is that Karzai almost certainly will win reelection to another five-year term this August. Vexed by the challenge of stabilizing Afghanistan with a partner they regard as less than reliable, Obama's advisers have crafted a two-pronged strategy that amounts to a fundamental break from the avuncular way President George W. Bush dealt with the Afghan leader.

Obama intends to maintain an arm's-length relationship with Karzai in the hope that it will lead him to address issues of concern to the United States, according to senior U.S. government officials. The administration will also seek to bypass Karzai by working more closely with other members of his cabinet and by funneling more money to local governors.

'It's Going to Be Different'

For Karzai, an elegant and engaging politician renowned for his ability to forge compromises between warring factions, the new American coolness is unlikely to be a surprise. Ten days before Obama's inauguration, Karzai told Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. during a private meeting in Kabul that he looked forward to building with Obama the same sort of chummy relationship he had with Bush, which included frequent videoconferences and personal visits.

"Well, it's going to be different," Biden replied, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation. "You'll probably talk to him or see him a couple of times a year. You're not going to be talking to him every week."

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