A fence-mending agenda for President Obama and Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai

By Zalmay Khalilzad
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Relations between the United States and Afghanistan have recently verged on crisis. Will this week's visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai return things to a better path? That will depend on four big issues:

First, restoring confidence. There is a substantial trust deficit between the United States and Afghanistan. Karzai feels personally slighted, perhaps even disoriented, by U.S. actions, such as a senior administration official's press briefing about the March meeting between Obama and Karzai and a leaked cable by the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan describing Karzai in unfavorable terms. He has been told by some of his advisers that the United States surreptitiously tried to defeat him in last year's presidential elections by supporting rival candidates and by focusing military operations on areas populated by his base in order to manipulate voter turnout. Hectoring by some senior administration officials underscored the credibility of these allegations in Karzai's eyes and added to his humiliation.

It appears that the Obama administration will try to soothe Karzai by giving him the red-carpet treatment. That's fine, but the improved atmosphere is just a backdrop: What is really needed is substance. The administration has developed serious doubts about Karzai's reliability and effectiveness as a partner, as well as his ability and will to deal with corruption and further the rule of law.

The presidents' meeting, therefore, must produce credible agreement on specific issues such as a new division of labor on security in Afghanistan. As he wrote in The Post on Sunday, Karzai wants a new status-of-forces-type agreement that limits coalition activities. For example, he wants coalition forces to stop entering Afghan homes or arresting Afghans. It would be good for both sides to begin negotiating a new framework for bilateral relations, perhaps by updating the five-year-old Strategic Partnership Agreement. The Obama administration should welcome Karzai's desire to take on more responsibility while noting that the Afghan leader may seek more authority than he is able to deliver on at this time.

This discussion needs to be pragmatic and realistic, not driven by pride or slogans -- a point that applies to the equally crucial issues of corruption and governance. Here, our administration needs to show a willingness to review and improve the U.S. government contracting process, which is undeniably part of the problem. This could prove to be an area of constructive collaboration, given mutual goodwill.

The third issue is dealing with the Taliban. Karzai's goals and strategy on this sensitive matter are unclear. Certainly, Afghans want an end to the warfare that has plagued their country for more than 30 years. At times it has appeared that Karzai wants the Taliban to accept the new order: Lay down its arms, acknowledge the Afghan constitution and forswear terror in exchange for amnesty and reintegration. At other times, Karzai has signaled that he wants to strike a deal with the Taliban and implied that everything is subject to negotiation, including the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and the validity of the constitution. And at still other times Karzai appears to believe that all hope for the future is lost and has said he would like to reconcile with the Taliban, if it would accept him. A mutual understanding of an acceptable end state on how to deal with the Taliban is critical, as are the steps that would be necessary to get there.

Fourth, all of this needs to be embedded in a coordinating regional strategy. Success in Afghanistan depends heavily on relations among key regional players, several of whom are being unhelpful. For example, Iran would like to see the United States abandon Afghanistan. Pakistan would prefer that Washington "subcontract" Afghanistan to it. Both are telling Karzai that the United States will abandon Afghanistan. Just as we are unclear on Karzai's approach to the Taliban, Karzai is confused about our relations with regional actors such as Pakistan. These points must be clarified during his visit, and a regional approach that includes the implications of a confrontation with and possible sanctions regime against Iran must be mapped out.

The United States is enormously invested in Afghanistan. In recent months it has sometimes seemed as though Karzai and the Obama administration, instead of seeking a joint way forward, were positioning themselves to blame the other for an inevitable failure in Afghanistan. The good news is that both seem to have recognized that things have gone too far and that both sides have to step back from the brink. The blame game is likely to resume, however, if they cannot develop and agree on a plan that improves the situation on the ground.

The writer, a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and president of the consulting firm Khalilzad Associates, served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration.

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