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Obama, Karzai Renew Pledge to Continue Fight Against Al-Qaida in Afghanistan

May 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington, following months of tension over accusations of government corruption. Gwen Ifill talks to former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace about the state of U.S.-Afghan relations.

GWEN IFILL: Presidents Obama and Karzai shared a common goal today: getting back on the same page.

It was all smiles today between the leaders of the U.S. and Afghanistan. Only last month, U.S. relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai had frayed, after a diplomatic war of words erupted between the two governments. But that was then.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am very pleased to welcome President Karzai back to the White House.

GWEN IFILL: Today’s White House visit was the capstone of an elaborately choreographed four-day Washington trip.

BARACK OBAMA: This visit’s an opportunity for us to assess the progress of our shared strategy in Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: Karzai won a disputed reelection last November, after a protracted fight. In its wake, U.S. officials questioned his ability to control government corruption and the resurgent local Taliban.

In March, Mr. Obama surprised Karzai with a quick trip to Kabul described by White House officials as an opportunity for face-to-face tough talk.

The president suggested today that any divide that existed then was never that wide.

BARACK OBAMA: With respect to perceived tensions between the U.S. government and the Afghan government, let me begin by saying a lot of them were simply overstated.

We’ve had very frank discussions. And President Karzai agrees with me that we can’t win through a military strategy alone.

GWEN IFILL: President Karzai echoed that assessment.

HAMID KARZAI, president of Afghanistan: The relationship between Afghanistan and the United States is now into its 10th year, in the form that it has since September 11, 2001. It’s not an imaginary relationship. It’s a real relationship. It’s based on some very hard and difficult realities.

GWEN IFILL: But sticking points do remain, including Afghanistan’s continued warm relations with Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently received a lavish welcome in Kabul.

HAMID KARZAI: We’ve also spoken with our American counterparts, from the very beginning, that Iran is our neighbor and a brother and we want to have the best of relations with him. We wish both countries the best. And if there is anything we can do to make things better, call us.

GWEN IFILL: Another outstanding issue, the Afghan government’s determination to work with elements of the Taliban. Karzai has invited those willing to lay down their arms to a peace jirga, or conference.

HAMID KARZAI: And it’s these thousands of Taliban who are not against Afghanistan or against the Afghan people or their country, who are not against America either or the rest of the world, and who want to come back to Afghanistan, if given an opportunity and provided the political means.

GWEN IFILL: The U.S. has added 30,000 troops to the force on the ground in Afghanistan, in part, Mr. Obama said, to support that effort.

BARACK OBAMA: The incentives for the Taliban to lay down arms, or at least portions of the Taliban to lay down arms, and make peace with the Afghan government in part depends on our effectiveness in breaking their momentum militarily.

GWEN IFILL: Both leaders acknowledged another longstanding sore spot between the two countries, the war’s high number of civilian casualties.

BARACK OBAMA: I am ultimately accountable, just as General McChrystal is accountable, for somebody who’s not on the battlefield who got killed.

Now, war is tough and difficult, and mistakes are going to be made. And our troops put themselves at risk, oftentimes, in order to reduce civilian casualties.

GWEN IFILL: That tough war promises to become only more difficult, as U.S. forces fight this summer to retake Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual home and a center of the insurgency.

So, is the strain between the U.S. and Afghanistan really a thing of the past? We get two points of view, from Zalmay Khalilzad, who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq during the Bush administration. He’s now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And from Alexander Thier, the director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan group that promotes conflict resolution. He worked for the U.N. in Afghanistan during the 1990s and from 2002 to 2004.

Ambassador Khalilzad, when the president said that this well-documented — widely documented tension with Afghanistan had been overstated, was he right?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, former United States ambassador to Afghanistan: Well, I think the president recognizes that things have gone a little too far between Afghanistan, President Karzai and the United States in recent months.

I think President Karzai also recognized that. And I think they have both agreed to turn a new page, to work together to make progress. But I think today was a start in order to reestablish the kind of partnership that existed at times in the past between the United States and Afghanistan.

The agreement that they have made in terms of updating the strategic partnership, the new division of labor, if you like, between the united Afghanistan on military cooperation, who will do what, civilian casualties issues, raiding Afghan homes, holding Afghan prisoners, we will have to see whether an agreement that is mutually acceptable can be made by the end of the year, which they have committed to.

And, of course, it will also depend on the situation on the ground whether it improves or not. Now, with Iraq, we criticized Prime Minister Maliki a lot at the beginning, that he was tied to the militias, he wasn’t decisive enough, but when the situation improved, the criticism on Maliki declined.

And I think we will have to wait and see. If the situation improves, I think things in terms of relations between Karzai and the administration will also improve. If they get worse or stays the same, I think we will come back to the same contentiousness that we have seen in recent weeks.

GWEN IFILL: There were a lot of ifs in his answer. A lot of things still have to happen. With today’s red carpet treatment, Mr. Thier, did that go any long way towards reaching any of those agreements?

J. ALEXANDER THIER, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. Institute of Peace: I think what you have is a situation where you have two presidents who both genuinely share similar objectives to try and reverse the negative momentum of the last several years in Afghanistan.

And they have been searching individually and together to try and find a way to do that. I think that the Obama administration has accepted that President Karzai is going to be the president of Afghanistan, and they’re now looking at how to work with his government in order to achieve some of those steps.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you this. Does this mean putting issues like corruption on the back burner?


I think what they’re trying to do, in addition to repairing the personal relationship between the presidents — and this — you see there are 15 Cabinet members in town. They’re meeting with a lot of our Cabinet officials.

They’re trying to broaden the relationship, so that this isn’t just about Obama and Karzai or Holbrooke and Karzai. It’s about two governments trying to work together on a problem. And I think, significantly, it was strongly emphasized today they’re trying to look past July 2011. They’re trying to say that this is a long-term partnership that transcends these two individuals, that transcends any individual, and is a long-term partnership that’s important for our security and for their security.

GWEN IFILL: There are still fundamental differences on things like including the Taliban in the rebuilding of Afghanistan or the relationships with Iran. How do you get past to 2011? How do you get past those kinds of potholes?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I think the key issue is to establish trust, which didn’t exist, or at least had diminished, given some of the interactions, statements, Karzai’s perception that the Obama administration worked against him in the elections.

GWEN IFILL: Was it more than perception? I mean, there was — the vice president was tough on them. The National Security Council was tough on them. The general was tough on them.

GWEN IFILL: The ambassador was tough on them.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: You would say, the reality is (INAUDIBLE) reporting that that’s what he believes happened.

And President Obama didn’t spend a lot of time with President Karzai, unlike President Bush, who spent a lot of personal time with him. I think they had an opportunity to spend some quality time together. But I think a lot of big issues remain that will determine the future of this relationship. And you have alluded to a couple of them.

But I think the whole issue of July of next year is an issue because, in Afghanistan, and I think in President Karzai’s mind as well, there is a fear that, come July ’11, the U.S. will begin to disengage militarily.

And — or do we emphasize the political and economic continued engagement? That may not be sufficient for success. So, I think a good start has been made to repair the relationship that has been damaged in recent months, but I think there is a long way to go to have the kind of strong partnership that is needed that can produce results on the ground.

GWEN IFILL: In order to repair that relationship, in order to create this kind of strong partner — or recreate this kind of strong partnership, does the U.S. have to just degree to disagree on things like Iran and engaging the Taliban?

J. ALEXANDER THIER: Well, I think that there are certain things that are fundamental to U.S. engagement in the region, and there are certain things that we can allow the Afghans to deal with.

On the Iranian question, there’s no question that the — Iran and Afghanistan need to have a positive relationship. They share a large border. They cooperate on a lot of issues, energy, security, narcotics, and that relationship has to exist and will continue indefinitely.

I think other issues, like corruption, which you raised earlier, are fundamental. And I think that the — that the critical thing is there that our shared objectives include building the legitimacy of the Afghan government. And corruption is one of the things that has undermined, fundamentally, the legitimacy of the Afghan government, and has therefore, emboldened the insurgency.

So, I don’t think that’s the type of thing that we can agree to disagree on. That’s the type of thing…

GWEN IFILL: So, the conversation just won’t happen in public anymore?

J. ALEXANDER THIER: No, I think it’s going to happen publicly, but the way you’re going to hear it happening is on specifics.

So, since the last broad, general, vague declarations about trying to deal with corruption, since then, the Afghan government has tried to make specific commitments, like the establishment and empowerment of a high oversight office, that they will undertake prosecutions of ministers and others who are involved in corruption.

So, we have to translate that discussion from a general, yes, we generally agree, to some measurable specifics, so that we can make sure that the Afghans not only say they’re going to do that, but they actually are going to do it.

GWEN IFILL: What about the civilian casualty issue? This is something which has really been sticking in President Karzai’s craw.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: On corruption, if I might, for one minute.

GWEN IFILL: Certainly.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Paradoxically, because of the deadline of July of next year, the Afghans believe that the U.S. might leave Afghanistan. So, the sense of confidence about the future has declined.

And that, in turn, paradoxically, has produced a situation in which the people are becoming short-timers in their thinking, and corruption has increased in recent time. And I think one of the challenges facing the president — and I understand the various pressures that has led him to go to the July deadline — is to how to interpret that more and more that gives a sense to the Afghans that the commitment militarily will also be enduring, if necessary, but it wouldn’t just be economic and political.

On civilian casualties, I think that there is a greater effort obviously to avoid them. And you saw President Karzai welcoming the efforts of General McChrystal on that thought.

GWEN IFILL: And we will talk about that separately another time.

Thank you both very much for joining us.


ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Thank you. Thank you very much.