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Obama makes personal diplomacy part of Afghan strategy

By Scott Wilson and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010; A01

President Obama has bluntly instructed his national security team to treat Afghan President Hamid Karzai with more public respect, after a recent round of heavy-handed statements by U.S. officials and other setbacks infuriated the Afghan leader and called into question his relationship with Washington.

During a White House meeting last month, Obama made clear that Karzai is the chief U.S. partner in the war effort -- which will be reflected in his visit to Washington that begins Monday, according to senior administration officials. In doing so, Obama is seeking to impose discipline on an administration that has sent mixed signals about Karzai's legitimacy and his value to the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign. As a result, Karzai threatened to join the Taliban just days after Obama concluded his first presidential trip to Kabul in late March.

After a two-hour palace meeting that advisers to both leaders described as productive, Karzai grew bitter after receiving a copy of comments made by Obama's national security adviser on the way to Kabul that struck him as insulting. Days later, Karzai read in a newspaper article that an unnamed U.S. official was threatening to put Ahmed Wali Karzai, his half brother, on the military's kill-or-capture list.

Karzai had been led to believe months earlier that his brother -- the leader of Kandahar's provincial council -- would remain in his post despite persistent accusations of corruption and ties to drug trafficking. Karzai erupted in anger soon after, stunning the White House.

"There has been a rough patch," said a senior administration official who participates in Afghanistan policy development. "Frankly, some of what Karzai said needed to be responded to. But the bottom line is that there has been an improvement since then in the atmospherics and in the substance of our dealings with President Karzai and his team."

Managing the relationship with Karzai is part of the far broader challenge of maintaining political support for a nearly nine-year-old war, which a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found is once again opposed by a majority of Americans. Fifty-two percent of respondents said the war is not worth fighting, which means the bump in support for the war that followed Obama's announcing his new Afghanistan strategy in December has disappeared.

Karzai's meeting with Obama in the Oval Office on Wednesday will be the centerpiece of a rare extended visit. Over the next four days, Karzai and many of his senior cabinet ministers will be publicly embraced and privately reassured by Obama of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, which officials say will endure long after American forces begin leaving in July 2011.

Karzai has been frightened by the deadline, U.S. officials acknowledge. Obama intends to devote much of his meeting with him to spelling out a long-term relationship that includes far fewer U.S. troops but deeper diplomatic and economic support.

It is not certain whether the message discipline will be able to reset what has long been a complicated relationship. Despite Obama's edict that the Afghan leader receive public support, deep policy differences remain inside the administration, including among top U.S. officials in Afghanistan, over Karzai's commitment to the government and security reforms essential to the U.S. mission.

Some of the mixed signals in recent months appear to be a direct result of the president's actions. In contrast to George W. Bush, Obama established more of an arm's-length personal relationship with Karzai. He also raised questions about Karzai's viability as a partner during a White House strategy review of the Afghanistan war last fall.

But Obama now wants his administration to close ranks, senior officials said.

Karzai's visit has been designed to be "a manifest demonstration of the relationship and the issues we are working on," the senior administration official said. Karzai will be hosted at dinners by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he trusts perhaps more than any other U.S. official, and Vice President Biden, with whom he has had a stormy relationship.

The administration has encouraged Karzai to bring a large delegation of senior Afghan officials, giving them a chance to meet their U.S. Cabinet counterparts and influential congressional leaders. Among them are ministers Obama recommended to Karzai during the Kabul visit, based on their competence rather than the tribal or ethnic affiliations that can complicate government reforms in Afghanistan.

"We want to emphasize that this is not a relationship with just one person," said a second senior administration official involved in Afghanistan policy, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe White House thinking about Karzai. But, the official hastened to add, "we do not look at this as a zero-sum situation or as a way of working around Kabul."

'Spiral of events'

Karzai's most recent tirade was set off by what one White House official called "a spiral of events" surrounding Obama's visit -- some within the administration's control and some beyond it.

According to senior administration officials, the circumstances that angered Karzai included remarks made by national security adviser James L. Jones before the meeting even began.

Jones told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One that Obama intended to "make [Karzai] understand that in his second term there are certain things that have not been paid attention to almost since Day One." Those remarks were viewed by Afghan officials as condescending, but Karzai did not learn of them until after Obama left Afghanistan.

Three days later, Karzai was enraged to read a report in The Washington Post that quoted an unnamed U.S. official threatening Ahmed Wali Karzai with a spot on the military's Joint Prioritized Engagement List, better known as the kill-or-capture list. The next day, Afghanistan's lower house of parliament rejected Karzai's proposal to change the national election law to give him more control over the body that investigates voter fraud, a move the Obama administration had opposed.

"We have our own national interest in the country," Karzai told a gathering of Afghan election officials the next day, accusing the United Nations and the international media of conspiring against him. "They wanted a servant government."

Within days, Karzai called Clinton to clarify his comments. But days later, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs still declined to call Karzai an ally.

"At the end of the day for Karzai, this is very much a question of respect," said a third senior administration official involved in Afghanistan policy. "He tends, like any head of state, to conflate an insult against me as an insult against my people. We tend to try to separate the two."

'Apply that touch'

Karzai was not the only leader who was angry. Obama was, too, particularly at the way U.S. officials had spoken about the Afghan president.

Obama made clear in a meeting with his senior national security team that Karzai is "someone we're going to have to work with for the next 4 1/2 years." Therefore, "high expectations should be set for [Karzai], and he should be held to them," but Obama would not tolerate any more public criticism.

On April 8, a note from Obama was delivered to Karzai in Kabul, thanking him for arranging his recent visit. Three days later, Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows to praise Karzai.

Obama's decision most reflected the position of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the military commander in Afghanistan. McChrystal had been arguing during monthly Situation Room review sessions that U.S. officials needed to show more public deference to Karzai.

The chief U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, has been on the other side of that argument, pushing to identify leaders outside Kabul to work with, rather than relying so heavily on Karzai.

In Afghanistan, much of Karzai's handling has fallen to McChrystal, who often takes the Afghan leader on his travels inside the country. According to diplomats in Afghanistan and analysts who travel there often, Karzai does not think he can trust Eikenberry or Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to the region, who has had a long and bitter relationship with the Afghan leader. A senior foreign diplomat in Kabul called Holbrooke a Karzai "bete noire," but both Holbrooke and Eikenberry say they have a productive relationship with the Afghan president.

Ryan C. Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, said the troop surge in Iraq succeeded in part because of the unity he and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander there at the time, showed in dealing with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, another complicated leader. But Crocker said the troop surge's success was also made possible by Bush's personal relationship with Maliki, with whom Bush spoke often via videoconference.

"So there was confidence at the top," said Crocker, who is now dean of Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government and Public Service. "President Obama certainly has the touch, there's no doubt about it. And now is the time for him to apply that touch."

'Designed to focus us'

In his December speech at West Point, Obama announced that U.S. troops would begin to leave Afghanistan in July 2011.

"The date was meant to focus the mind of the Afghans, certainly," a senior administration official said. "But it was also designed to focus us back here. It enforces discipline on a project that really had been adrift for years."

Diplomats in the region say the date has sometimes had the opposite effect on Karzai, causing him to weigh every U.S. demand against its potential implications for his political life after the troops leave. Those fears lay behind his comments about joining the Taliban, officials say.

Obama is mindful of Karzai's anxieties, and he began describing the long-term U.S. role in Afghanistan in a videoconference with Karzai a few weeks before his Kabul visit, a senior administration official said. Obama will spend much of his Wednesday meeting with Karzai addressing those same concerns.

"President Karzai wants to have a sense of the enduring nature of the commitment, of his relationship with the president, and where he stands -- and that's natural," the senior official said. "What we'll be doing coming out of this is to talk in more detail about what the long-term relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan will look like. And that isn't about having 100,000 troops there forever."

Staff writers Al Kamen and Anne E. Kornblut and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this story.

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