Even as the two presidents fence over second-tier issues this week, Karzai is well aware of the 800-pound gorilla that now sits quietly and menacingly in the back of their meeting rooms. This gorilla will soon usher in Obama-Karzai Round II, a round in which Obama can regain the upper hand. Expect round II to begin shortly before July 2011 - that is when Obama's unspecified troop withdrawals from Afghanistan are slated to begin.
Karzai is not likely to raise that subject this week since Obama holds most of the cards on this issue. Instead, expect him to go on the offensive and stress that Washington can't expect Afghans to fight and die if the United States will not make a long-term commitment to Afghan security. That would mean keeping a large percentage of the expected 100,000 U.S. troops (not yet all in country) in Afghanistan for an indefinite and unspecified period. It also would mean an indefinite commitment of billions of U.S. dollars to Kabul.
Here's what Obama should do to regain his ultimate bargaining advantages and protect U.S. interests:
First, he should state firmly and flatly that the United States will begin withdrawals a little over a year from now—and will continue those withdrawals at a steady and careful pace. Such a statement will put the issue squarely on the table.
Second, he should stress Washington's strong desire to continue helping Afghans fight for their own freedom and independence with emergency troop support, military and economic aid, intelligence and logistical support etc., while also stressing that help depends on Afghans being willing and able to take on the main burdens of that fight.
Third, he should make clear that the United States will continue to secure its own interests, principally against international terrorists in Afghanistan and the region, by traditionally effective means: containment, deterrence, alliances, and divide-and-conquer strategies.