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White House Hosts Awkward Dinner

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: September 28, 2006

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President Bush sought to quell a growing feud between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart Prevez Musharraf when he dined with both leaders (LAT) at the White House Wednesday evening. The dinner was described as a tense affair. The leaders never shook hands, and the meeting produced no major breakthroughs. Although Press Secretary Tony Snow released a statement afterwards characterizing the evening as "a constructive exchange on the common challenges facing our three nations," the two leaders' body language suggested mutual distrust (NYT).

In the days leading up to their White House sit-down, Karzai and Musharraf traded a series of verbal punches (WashPost). At a September 20 CFR meeting, Karzai called on Musharraf to toughen his stance against Taliban militants and other terrorists who use Pakistan as a safe haven. "Terrorism has only enemies and knows no boundaries," he said. "The only course is to kill it. You cannot train a snake to bite someone else.” He repeated these sentiments at a White House press conference on Tuesday. Musharraf, whose efforts to fight the Taliban are examined in this Backgrounder, refuted Karzai's criticism at a CFR meeting Monday night: "It’s unfortunate Karzai thinks that all this is happening from Pakistan’s side. [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar has never come to Pakistan after 1995.” The Pakistani president also made headlines last week for his candid remarks on 60 Minutes—partly to promote his new tell-all book—in which he described threats made by a top American official in the aftermath of 9/11 to bomb Pakistan back to the "Stone Age" if it did not cooperate in the U.S.-led war on terror.

President Musharraf has rejected the idea his government has been lax and repeated his determination to root out the Taliban. He has faced criticisms over a recent truce he signed with pro-Taliban tribes in northern Waziristan. Attacks in the border region have tripled since the September 5 ceasefire, according to the U.S. military (Toronto Star). Musharraf is less worried about the Taliban than he is about an uprising by ethnic Pashtuns along the Pakistani border, Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace tells CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman. "[T]hey’ve been a source of great concern to Pakistan because of the fear that if you get some kind of Pashtun mobilization it would lead to the fracturing of the Pakistani state."

Karzai, in a recent interview with ABC News, criticized Musharraf's truce and asked Pakistan "to take a much stronger cooperative approach toward terrorism and to remove sanctuaries of terrorism from their country." His visit comes at a time when violence eerily similar to Iraq’s grips his country. Suicide bombs against civilians now regularly rip through Afghan communities, a reminder that a resurgent Taliban has reclaimed large swaths of the southern part of the country, what Newsweek calls "Jihadistan." Lack of aid from international donors has hobbled reconstruction efforts (AP). Corruption, including rampant bribe-taking and nepotism, plagues the Afghan government’s economic reforms. And a booming opium trade, comprising 90 percent of the world’s supply, has financed Taliban insurgents, as this Backgrounder explains.

What explains Afghanistan’s slide toward chaos? In short, the war in Iraq, writes the Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid (New York Review of Books). Because of attention focused on Iraq, Rashid writes, “[f]or Afghanistan the results have been too few Western troops, too little money, and a lack of a coherent strategy and sustained policy initiatives on the part of Western and Afghan leaders.” A recent Council Special Report, authored by New York University’s Barnett R. Rubin, calls for more aid from international donors like Japan and Germany, renewed investments in the country’s crumbling infrastructure, and a resolution to the Pakistani-Indian conflict, which threatens Afghanistan’s integration into the region.

Meanwhile, NATO, tasked with patrolling the unruly Afghan-Pakistani border, is struggling to scrounge up 2,500 additional troops (A Backgrounder examines NATO's Afghan security challenges). The trouble, the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus says, is “a mission that was initially framed as a peacekeeping operation has turned into full-scale combat.” Since August 2003, NATO has led the 8,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)—which gained 11,000 additional troops this year—and assisted in provincial reconstruction teams throughout Afghanistan, both resulting in mixed success.

Military action alone will not resolve Afghanistan’s myriad economic and social ails, Karzai told the United Nations. Parliamentary reform is also required, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG). The National Assembly, despite including warlords and drug kingpins, should incorporate more formalized political blocs to prevent Karzai from becoming marginalized and overly reliant on unstable alliances of ethnic and tribal leaders, the ICG suggests. 

Analysts say President Bush’s recent pledge before the United Nations to Afghans that “[w]e will continue to stand with you to defend your democratic gains,” may ring hollow if additional forces and aid are not forthcoming. “The international community makes promises that remain unfulfilled,” Rashid writes, “only to remake them a few years later, freshly packaged.”

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