The Cable

Obama team seeks to use Karzai visit to broaden ties

What a difference six weeks can make in the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship. When Afghan President Hamid Karzai comes to Washington this week, White House officials will welcome him with open arms, quite different than the scolding tone they took with him when President Obama went to Kabul in March. The White House knows it has to ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

What a difference six weeks can make in the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship. When Afghan President Hamid Karzai comes to Washington this week, White House officials will welcome him with open arms, quite different than the scolding tone they took with him when President Obama went to Kabul in March.

The White House knows it has to make nice with Karzai, who is crucial to the success of the Afghanistan mission. But the trip has also been set up to try to diversify ties with his government by welcoming a whole slew of Afghan cabinet ministers and officials and setting up meetings to cement connections outside the direct Obama-Karzai relationship.

"Next week is really the reciprocal visit for Obama’s March visit to Kabul," said the NSC’s Af-Pak special assistant Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute. But the difference in messaging between Obama’s March trip to Kabul and Karzai’s May trip to Washington is stark.

On Air Force One during Obama’s trip to Kabul, National Security Advisor Jim Jones established the tough love message on corruption, saying that Obama wanted Karzai to "understand that in his second term, there are certain things that have not been paid attention to, almost since Day 1," and that Karzai "needs to be seized with how important" the issue of corruption is.

But following Obama’s visit, Karzai lashed out at the Americans, accused the U.S. and the UN of engineering the massive fraud of his own election, and threatened to join the Taliban if the West didn’t treat him nicely.

The Obama administration moved quickly to stem the bleeding and put the messaging about the relationship back on the right track.

"We believe that we are on a encouraging glide path in Afghanistan," Jones told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way back to Washington April 9, adding that Karzai "will prove himself over time as we tackle all of these important issues to be very reliable and is very appreciative of everything that we’re doing."

Not many outside the administration are convinced Karzai is showing actual improvement.

"The problem is that we clearly have a flawed partner in Mr. Karzai and his government, and it’s not at all clear that the situation’s improving," said Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass. "To the contrary, it seems to be deteriorating."

Some argue that the administration should keep up its mix of carrots and sticks until Karzai is actually pressured enough to make reforms.

"Without a strong natural constituency or powerful military to call his own, President Karzai cannot afford to alienate many of his political partners," CNAS’ Andrew Exum wrote in a new report last week. But Exum also pinpointed a problem with that strategy, namely that the U.S. has no choice but to stick with Karzai no matter what he does."The United States and its allies cannot hedge against Karzai by courting alternatives because no palatable alternatives exist," Exum wrote.

So the Obama team decided to invite Karzai’s entire cabinet to Washington, to try to stem the volatility of a relationship based on interactions with one erratic man.

 "We want to underscore with this visit the development of a very broad strategic partnership," explained deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, adding that the broad participation "serves to underscore the breadth of the relationship."

Karzai will be bringing his ministers of defense, interior, agriculture, development, reconciliation, and others. After arriving on Washington on Monday, he’ll kick off a set of State Department meetings with some public remarks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday morning.

Wednesday will be the White House day, and Karzai will get significant time with President Obama in the Oval Office while his other ministers meet with their various interlocutors. On Thursday, Karzai goes to the think tanks, with one public event with Clinton at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

But while the Obama administration is clearly trying to establish ties with Karzai’s ministers and associates, they are steering clear of his opponents. When Abdullah Abdullah, who ran against Karzai in the presidential election, comes to DC the week after Karzai, he will get no love from the administration at all.

"He’s coming as a private citizen and being hosted by private organizations, not by the U.S. government," said Lute, "To my knowledge he is not meeting with any U.S government officials at an official capacity.

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