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Obama's War: Resetting a relationship

U.S. resetting its relationship with Karzai

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By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

When a team of senior U.S. officials led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the presidential palace in Kabul on Wednesday for a dinner meeting, they had little indication of what Afghan President Hamid Karzai planned to discuss, or whether questions about corruption and governance would pitch their host into a foul mood.

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But instead of revisiting old disputes, Karzai brought in several cabinet ministers to talk about development and security. He explained details of a new effort to address graft. And halfway through a meal of lamb stew, chicken and rice, he looked across the table and said he had decided that the United States would be a "critical partner" in his second term, according to a senior U.S. official familiar with the meeting.

The Americans also turned on the charm. Clinton, wearing an embroidered floral coat she had purchased on an earlier trip to Afghanistan, told stories of her time in Arkansas and in the Senate, and listened with interest as the Afghans detailed how they recently exported 12 tons of apples to India by air.

As President Obama nears a decision on how many more troops he will dispatch to Afghanistan, his top diplomats and generals are abandoning for now their get-tough tactics with Karzai and attempting to forge a far warmer relationship. They recognize that their initial strategy may have done more harm than good, fueling stress and anger in a beleaguered, conspiracy-minded leader whom the U.S. government needs as a partner.

"It's not sustainable to have a 'War of the Roses' relationship here, where . . . we basically throw things at each other," said another senior administration official, one of more than a dozen U.S. and Afghan government officials interviewed for this article. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal policy deliberations.

The new approach, which one official described as a "reset" of the relationship, will entail more engagement with members of Karzai's cabinet and provincial governors, officials said, because they have concluded that the Afghan president lacks the political clout in his highly decentralized nation to purge corrupt local warlords and power brokers. The CIA has sent a longtime field officer close to Karzai to be the new station chief in Kabul. And State Department envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, whose aggressive style has infuriated the Afghan leader at times, is devoting more attention to shaping policy in Washington and marshaling international support for reconstruction and development programs.

The tension in the relationship stems from the cumulative impact of several White House decisions that were intended to improve the quality of the Afghan government. When Obama became president, he discontinued his predecessor's practice of holding bimonthly videoconferences with Karzai. Obama granted wide latitude to the hard-charging Holbrooke to pressure Karzai to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that have fueled the Taliban's rise. The administration also indicated that it wanted many candidates to challenge Karzai in the August presidential election.

Although there is broad agreement among Obama's national security team that Karzai has been an ineffective leader, a growing number of top officials have begun to question in recent months whether those actions wound up goading him into doing exactly what the White House did not want: forging alliances with former warlords, letting drug traffickers out of prison and threatening to sack competent ministers. Those U.S. officials now think that Karzai, a tactically shrewd tribal chieftain who is under enormous stress as he seeks to placate and balance rival factions in his government, may operate best when he does not feel besieged.

Criticism of the Obama administration's manner of dealing with Karzai has been most pronounced among senior military officials, who question why the State Department has not dispatched more civilians to help the Afghan leader fix the government or worked more intensively with him to achieve U.S. goals.

"We've been treating Karzai like [Slobodan] Milosevic," a senior Pentagon official said, referring to the former Bosnian Serb leader whom Holbrooke pressured into accepting a peace treaty in the 1990s. "That's not a model that will work in Afghanistan."

Fueling tensions

Karzai's first indication that his relationship with the United States would undergo a profound shift occurred 10 days before Obama's inauguration. Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. had come to the palace for dinner, and halfway through the meal, he began taking his host to task for how he was responding to civilian casualties caused by U.S. and NATO military operations.

Biden told Karzai that he was politicizing the issue and leveling "ill-founded" allegations in public, according to a previously undisclosed account of the dinner from a person who attended. Karzai argued back, and the discussion turned tense. "Biden got a little bit passionate about it," the participant said. "Karzai was taken aback, and he got a little bit passionate, too."


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