White House and NATO mend relations with Karzai, call him "partner." After remarks earlier this week by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he would join the Taliban, and his mounting criticism of the international community, it appears that relations are now on the mend. While some in the media deemed Karzai an unreliable ally for the U.S. and the U.N., the secretary-general of NATO and the U.S. president have come to the embattled leader's defense.
NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen described Karzai as a "a willing and necessary partner," reports Reuters. Rasmussen dismissed the recent war of words between Karzai and the international community, and instead focused on the importance of holding Karzai accountable for promises pertaining to "improved governance, including strengthening the fight against corruption."
And as the The Associated Press reports, Obama also came to Karzai's defense in an interview with ABC News. He called the Afghan president "a critical partner" and said that he believed that Karzai was committed to fighting corruption. Obama hinted that the spar of words was perhaps related "to his [Karzai's] own domestic politics that he has to deal with." The president shied away from using the word "ally" to describe Karzai, however. He called him a "partner" instead, reflecting this administration's hesitance to deem the corruption-riddled Karzai government an ally. Earlier in the week, when Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked if Karzai was an ally, he too used the word "partner."
Speaking with reporters, U.S. national security adviser Gen. James Jones denied rumors that Karzai was no longer welcome to the White House and said that there was no change in plans for Karzai's scheduled visit in May.
5:00 PM ET -- First Osprey crash. The Associated Press reports that a U.S. Air Force Osprey plane crashed in southeastern Afghanistan today, the first ever Osprey crash in a combat zone. The Osprey is the military's newest transport aircraft, flying like a regular plane but landing and taking off like a helicopter. Three U.S. service members and one civilian contractors died in the crash.
While the Taliban claimed responsibility for the crash, saying that insurgents shot down the plane, NATO is still investigating the cause.
From the AP:
A Taliban spokesman said militants shot down the aircraft, but the insurgents often make exaggerated claims. NATO said the cause was still under investigation. A Pentagon spokesman, Marine Maj. Shawn Turner, said it was the first time that an Osprey, which cost nearly $70 million apiece, has crashed during operations in a war zone.
4:00 PM ET -- Jeffrey Gedmin of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has a different take on "all the chatter about Karzai" and his anti-Western outbursts. While in the American media there's been much ado about Karzai's comments and (in)competence, the view from Afghanistan differs. The U.S. and its Western allies choose to focus on corruption, but Afghans--though concerned about corruption--believe the problem in Afghanistan is more its neighbor, Pakistan. Many believe that the insurgency is funded and operated from Pakistani soil, and that it is part of an Indian-Pakistani proxy war. Afghans place more importance on the bigger picture--defeating the Taliban, and ignore the bickering between the U.S. and Karzai.
Yes, Karzai is volatile. His recent outbursts are reckless. There's frustration with him on the Afghan side, too. But maybe it's time for allies to take a breath. One tribal leader told me he couldn't care less about all the chatter about Karzai. "We understand why the United States came here." It would be "a global shame if the Americans lost the big picture and left before finishing what they set out to accomplish."
2:00 PM ET -- How to explain Karzai? How do we explain Karzai's erratic behavior and outlandish comments? Writing in Foreign Policy, Martine van Bijlert thinks that Karzai's recent accusations that the West is meddling in his affairs are his way of sending signals to the international community, to Afghans, and to the Parliament.
He is an angry and frustrated politician and he is sending signals. To the Parliament that he is seriously upset and that they need to mend their ways; to the international actors, that he really minds that they keep meddling in his affairs; to the population that he is their president and that he has a mind of his own; and to the insurgency that he is closer to them than they think.
Karzai is juggling multiple obligations as "commander in chief, credible partner of the "international community," president in control, provider for his people," and he's trying to be the president of all Afghans--the insurgents and the people. His comments--including the threat to join the Taliban--were his attempt to play to all sides. Unfortunately for him, he was roundly derided. The Taliban told him they'd rather try him in court than let him join them, while most Afghans are just plain embarrassed at their president's fulminations.
11:00 AM ET -- Toppling of Kyrgyz President could complicate U.S. mission in Afghanistan. The toppling of the Kyrgyz government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev could spell trouble for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, according to the Washington Post. The country is home to the Manas air base, which has been the only U.S. air base in Central Asia since Uzbekistan evicted the U.S. in 2005. The base crucially transports U.S. troops and weapons to Afghanistan: "In March, 50,000 U.S. and allied forces heading to and from Afghanistan transited through the Manas air base." Manas air base is also a refueling center for U.S. planes and is home to a KC-135 tanker squadron. With a surge of 30,000 troops planned to land in Afghanistan this spring, the disturbances in Kyrgyzstan could complicate U.S. plans. On Thursday, as the coup unraveled, the U.S. was forced to keep all troops inside the base and to curtail flights.
While for the moment the interim government hasn't put forward any formal requests for the U.S. to vacate or to renegotiate their contract for the air base, some "indicated that, at a minimum, Washington would be forced to negotiate fresh terms to maintain the military installation, less than a year after the Bakiyev government tripled the rent and extracted $150 million in other concessions." Many opposition forces resented the U.S. government's support for Bakiyev, who they accuse of human rights violations and of suppressing democracy. One scholar said that Manas air base is seen "as the poisonous fruit of relations with Washington."