WORLDPOST
05/10/2010 06:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Admin To Try To 'Bite Its Tongue' During Karzai Visit

(AP) WASHINGTON - Afghan President Hamid Karzai will spend four days in Washington starting Monday selling Americans on the notion that his country is not a lost cause.

The Obama administration, after sidelining Karzai as an ineffective leader, meanwhile will try to bite its tongue and support a politician who holds the key to the U.S. exit from an unpopular war.

Karzai and a large delegation of Cabinet ministers were arriving later Monday for what will mark the Karzai government's widest engagement with U.S. leaders since his re-election in a flawed vote last year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was visiting Afghanistan on Sunday, said Karzai will be received in Washington with "great dignity, great friendship and great candor."

From the U.S. perspective, the week's events are intended to show respect for Karzai, who seems destined to preside over Kabul's eventual political reconciliation with the Taliban as well as the gradual withdrawal of the U.S.-led NATO forces now holding the insurgents at bay.

Behind the genial public facade of the visit, both sides will struggle with deeply divisive issues:

• Karzai presides over a weak central government established with heavy U.S. and European guidance and supported with billions in aid. He is a talented politician and a proven survivor, but has failed to rally Afghans to Kabul's side.

• Karzai's government suffers from endemic corruption, part of Afghanistan's entrenched culture of barter and payoff that the Taliban, warlords and drug rings also exploit. What Washington sees as shameless nepotism or bribery, Afghanistan's powerbrokers see as their due.

• The war, now in its ninth year, remains unpopular in the United States, Europe and in much of Afghanistan itself. Obama accepted the argument for more forces made by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the counterinsurgency expert the president installed to turn the war around last summer. Now U.S. military officials say time is running out for those troops to make a difference. Top military leaders generally give the policy about another year. After that, if the war remains deadlocked in key districts there is little chance of changing the equation.

• Afghanistan still has an uneasy, unequal relationship with Pakistan, the nuclear-armed next-door neighbor that is, by many assessments, the more important determiner of whether al-Qaida again gains enough footing in the region to launch another catastrophic attack on the United States or its allies.

Karzai's discussions this week are expected to focus on the health of Afghanistan's central government, Karzai's outreach to disaffected tribes or potential insurgents, and the difficult counterinsurgency effort already under way in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province.

He sees Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday, and President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday.

There is no formal state dinner at the White House, but a dinner hosted by Biden is intended as a fence-mender. Biden was particularly incensed when Karzai remarked last month that if foreign interference in his government continued, the Taliban would become a legitimate resistance -- one that he might even join.

Karzai will face close questions about that statement when he sees members of Congress on Wednesday and Thursday.

The top U.S. general running the war and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan arrived ahead of Karzai as part of a schedule so tightly scripted by the White House that some senior Pentagon officials weren't told of plans for Gen. Stanley McChrystal to hold a White House press conference on Monday. They learned from reporters after the white House announced it.

The 8-year-old Afghan war is one main topic for Karzai's meetings with Obama and others. Pentagon officials say they see signs of progress this spring, but the war remains stalemated in key Taliban-allied districts and a U.S.-led military push across southern Afghanistan is off to a slower start than hoped.

The postwar future of Afghanistan is another. Obama intends to begin withdrawing U.S. forces next summer, although few people think the war will be won soon after.

No amount of reassurance from Obama is likely to change Karzai's view that the U.S. has put a stopwatch on the conflict, bolstering the resolve of the insurgents.

All sides will try to say as little as possible about the Obama administration's early ambivalence toward Karzai, which he took as a slight, or Karzai's recent outbursts against what he called foreign interference.

"They wanted a servant government," Karzai complained shortly after Obama made a surprise visit to Kabul in late March. Both leaders said at the time that their meeting went well, but Karzai later bristled at remarks about the trip from U.S. officials that he found insulting.

A year ago, U.S. officials frequently pointed to their efforts to develop political talent outside of Karzai's inner circle.

That is still a tenet of McChrystal's revamped U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, but U.S. officials decided it did them no good to publicly undermine Karzai, said Gilles Dorronsoro, who studies the Afghan political system at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"What's changed is not the Afghan attitude but the U.S. attitude," Dorronsoro said. "The U.S. administration understands after too long that all the public pressure on Karzai was a mistake. Karzai now is dealing with the Americans probably better, because the Americans are less pushy, less bossy."