Karzai's Notably Un-Notable Visit to Washington

If Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington has been at all noteworthy, it is only because nothing even remotely notable has happened at all. And for that, everyone involved is probably breathing a sigh of relief.

The Afghan president came to Washington to repair ties in a relationship that has seemed to crumble over the course of the year. A quick refresher: the U.S. has criticized Karzai for turning a blind eye to corruption and drug trafficking within his government. Karzai, in turn, has accused U.S. officials of failing to give him the support he needs to do his job. The strain worsened when U.S. officials questioned the validity of his re-election. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to the region, reportedly stormed out of a meeting with the Afghan leader in one of his notorious fits of rage. Senator John Kerry had to be called in to reassure Karzai that elections can be rough experiences. Once Karzai felt sufficiently snubbed, he made a public show of threatening to join the Taliban.

This time around, he got a barrage of niceness instead--a walk through the garden, dinner under chandeliers, extra face time with the president, and glowing reports from the same administration officials who once offered searing critiques of his leadership. Those officials told reporters in advance that they planned to let the corruption issue slide during Karzai's visit, a welcome respite for the Afghans after last year's chill. As the New York Times reported the reception:

The Americans are pulling out all the stops for Mr. Karzai as part of a new charm offensive. Mrs. Clinton, one of the few people in the administration with a good rapport with him, has invited him for a stroll through the grounds of a private enclave in Georgetown. Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative to the region, was dispatched to Andrews Air Force Base at 7 a.m. on Monday to personally greet Mr. Karzai. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be Mr. Karzai's host for a private dinner at the vice president's mansion.

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And Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the ambassador to Afghanistan, who personally escorted Mr. Karzai on the flight from Kabul to Washington, was sent off to assure reporters at the White House that he now had faith in the Afghan president's determination to succeed, a position that stands in contrast to his diplomatic cable last fall denouncing Mr. Karzai as "not an adequate strategic partner."

The new warmth is oozing all the way to the Oval Office. President Obama, in an unusual show of hospitality and presidential attention toward a visiting foreign delegation, will be host to Mr. Karzai and others in his government for almost a full day at the White House, including a lunch on Wednesday followed by a rare joint news conference.

In shifting from sticks to carrots, White House officials clearly wanted nothing more than for this visit to go smoothly. And that it did. Where once there was talk of stolen elections, there was today talk of "strategic partnership" and "frank" discussions. No one stormed out of dinner in a huff. No senators had to be called in to repair the damage. Obama and Karzai survived a joint press conference without any gaffes. The administration was on board the Karzai Express, and not once did that train go off the tracks.

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Where does that leave us, then? With the same questions as before on where exactly the Karzai Express is actually headed. As Mike Hirsh put it earlier this week, "if Obama and NATO are to succeed with their plans for a phased withdrawal, Karzai's plans for reconciliation with hardliners, beginning with his upcoming 'peace jirga,' must succeed first." That jirga, scheduled for this summer, is supposed to bring together some 1,500 Afghan leaders, including leaders of the insurgency, to hash out the terms of a national reconciliation. As far as plans for ending the war go, it's bold, it's ambitious, it recognizes the limitations of the government's power--and yet there's no guarantee the Taliban will even show up. Only one reporter, an Afghan woman, pressed the two presidents on what their plan was for such a reconciliation. Karzai responded that there are thousands of Taliban members with no ideological basis for fighting his government. He called them "country boys," driven to the insurgency either by Taliban intimidation or by disillusionment with past government failures. Obama essentially said it was Karzai's problem, limiting the U.S. role to keeping up the military pressure so Taliban leaders don't get overly confident at the negotiating table.

Both answers were dodges, of course. Luring back impoverished "country boys," whose political allegiances extend no further than the edge of their villages, is not necessarily an easy task, but it is at least easy to imagine as a realistically attainable goal. According to a draft of the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Plan floating around Kabul, a Taliban member who wants amnesty will have to renounce violence, recognize the government, and take courses in literacy; in return, he'll get a job doing manual labor. How much of the insurgency is actually made up of country boys who would settle for such a package, though? And how far up the Taliban food chain could reconciliation hope to aim? This is the basis of the bet, yet it's unclear anyone knows the answers to those questions. For Taliban commanders, the plan calls for political accommodation, as would be hashed out at the jirga. What compromises, inevitably unpalatable, should be made in order to tempt them back into government? How much power is Karzai prepared to hand over to them? How much power is the Obama team comfortable with him handing over?

Open questions, all of them. But even if the White House hasn't figured out what to say to the Taliban, at least they seem to have figured out how to talk to the Afghan government.

Karzai's Notably Un-Notable Visit to Washington | World