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Karzai's Visit: Rebranding the Partnership

Author: Brett H. McGurk, International Affairs Fellow
May 10, 2010

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrives Monday for a week of high-profile meetings in Washington. He will be hosted at the State Department, Pentagon, White House, and Capitol Hill in a visit that is essential to repairing a troubled but vital partnership.

The administration has been divided on how best to handle the Afghan leader. Public spats over corruption and cabinet appointments only hardened Karzai and caused him to lash out at the United States. This was not a good development for Afghanistan or for the United States--which needs a steady partner in Kabul over the next eighteen months, perhaps the most critical window of the war.

Afghanistan has presented U.S. President Barack Obama with a host of thorny "multiple audience" problems. On the one hand, he wants to signal to the American people and to Afghan leaders that American patience is not unlimited--thus the July 2011 date for beginning to withdraw U.S. surge troops. On the other hand, however, he needs to reassure Afghan leaders and ordinary Afghans that the United States is committed to long-term success in Afghanistan. The Taliban is not going anywhere, and they let Afghans know it.

This visit should be tailored to reassure the Afghans that the United States has a vision for a multidimensional long-term partnership. With military operations beginning in Kandahar, the heart of the Taliban insurgency, a strategic signal must be sent early and often that the Taliban cannot simply wait America out. That signal is essential to isolating the most hardened elements of the insurgency and weaning rank and file fighters off the battlefield.

Reassurance will also strengthen Karzai's hand as he tries to divide and weaken the insurgency. He had intended to start the process last week to build support for opening discussions with Taliban leaders but smartly delayed the talks until after his White House meeting. Closed-door sessions this week must ensure that Karzai's vision for these talks is generally aligned with our own and complement joint operations in Kandahar.

The anchor to the visit should be a commitment to negotiate a long-term strategic framework between Afghanistan and the United States, to include an enduring security partnership. As in Iraq, such agreements are the bookend to a surge policy--and vehicles for strengthening Afghan sovereignty with a template to guide future relations.

Another audience, finally, is Pakistan. Its leaders want to know the United States is committed to stabilizing its northern neighbor--before stepping up its own counterinsurgency campaign. Once again, a message of reassurance plus a pledge to forge enduring ties is in our own self interest and something to watch for as this important week unfolds.

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