Withdrawal of U.S. Troops From Afghanistan Hangs Over Karzai Visit

BY Larisa Epatko  May 10, 2010 at 4:22 PM EST


Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Photo by AFP/Getty Images

The July 2011 deadline President Barack Obama set to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan serves as the backdrop and lends some urgency to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s meetings in Washington, D.C., this week, analysts say.

Karzai arrived Monday for a four-day visit with State Department and White House officials. On Wednesday, the two presidents plan to hold a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden.

One of the tasks at hand is rebuilding relations after comments Karzai made last month asserting that the fraud-riddled elections were caused by United Nations and other foreign organizations seeking to prevent his re-election. His spokesmen later sought to dial back his criticism, but in subsequent interviews with the media, Karzai did not back off his claims.

In a letter printed in the Washington Post on Sunday, Karzai referred to the ups and downs of the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship:

“As in any genuine partnership, this has not been an easy ride. We have had our share of disagreements over some issues and approaches. What has kept us together is an overriding strategic vision of an Afghanistan whose peace and stability can guarantee the safety of the Afghan and the American peoples.”

Karzai also called for more assistance equipping Afghan security forces and rebuilding services and institutions, which he said would help reduce the country’s corruption — a demand the Obama administration has placed on him.

“Removing parallel structures that undermine the authority of our government is key,” Karzai wrote. “Addressing corruption and waste in the delivery mechanisms, including contractual systems, is imperative. President Obama’s decision to channel more funds through the Afghan government is a good step forward.”

The visit comes with the July 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops just a little more than a year away. President Obama, who set the deadline, needs to know that things are progressing toward ending the war that his predecessor started and that he promised to bring to a close, said Torek Farhadi, who served as a senior adviser to the Afghan government from 2002-2004.

But President Karzai, who just entered his second term last year, is operating under a different timeframe and is seeking U.S. investments in security and infrastructure in Afghanistan beyond the July 2011 troop withdrawal, Farhadi said.

Before the withdrawal, U.S. forces are increasing by 30,000 and planning a second major offensive in the city of Kandahar to loosen the Taliban’s grip in the South.

Another area in which Karzai will likely seek agreement is on his upcoming peace “jirga” or grand council of Afghans, including about 1,500 tribal elders, local leaders and lawmakers and civil society members, expected later in May to discuss reintegrating Taliban fighters into society.

The U.S. administration so far has said only senior members of the Taliban who renounce violence and ties to al-Qaida should be reintegrated, and that more gains in the battlefield should be made by then.

Rather than negotiating with select groups of the Taliban, Karzai prefers a more generalized approach — holding the jirga and getting a mandate from the Afghan people to say, “these are all our brothers, whatever they did in the past let’s bring them back,” said Farhadi. A green light from Washington would allow Karzai to say there’s a process in place and we need to bring these fighters back to Afghan society, he added.

According to Alexander Thier, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace, “Because of Kandahar and the surge, the ‘let’s change the facts on the ground first’ perspective will likely prevail, especially when coupled with the deep skepticism about whether the Taliban can permanently sever from al-Qaida, and whether it would be verifiable. The Times Square attempt and possible Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan involvement definitely increases that skepticism.”

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Taliban has said foreign forces must leave before they reintegrate, said Farhadi. “So it’s a chicken and egg situation for them.”

Presidents Karzai and Obama will probably exude confidence at Wednesday’s press conference, Farhadi continued, but “the situation is much, much more complex on the ground.”

Afghanistan is a poor country with geographic distances that make infrastructure expensive to develop, in addition to security problems preventing installation of even the most basic of services like electricity, said Farhadi.

“For all complex situations there are solutions, but there is no 12 months cure pill” for Afghanistan, he added.