KABUL — A month after he delivered a blistering public assault on the U.S.-led military campaign in his country, Afghan President Hamid Karzai heads to Washington Sunday to launch a campaign to convince wavering Americans that the distant war is worth the rising price.
As he visits the White House and Congress, Karzai will be leading a high-level delegation looking to move past the poisonous dispute that's shaken U.S. public and political support for the eight-year-old conflict.
However, Karzai likely will face a political gauntlet from American politicians who will challenge him on his commitment to hold free parliamentary elections this fall, reject unpalatable Taliban demands in any future peace talks, build a trustworthy security force and curb pervasive government corruption.
"If he doesn't clear up his commitment to deal with the corruption, it's hard to say the talks will be successful, because there will be a lot of people in Congress who will wonder why we are backing this horse," said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who met Karzai last weekend in Kabul.
U.S. officials expect Karzai to make his case to the American public, and Karzai advisers said they want to return to Kabul with assurances that the U.S. won't soon abandon its multi-billion-dollar commitment to Afghanistan.
While U.S. politicians are expecting Karzai to show some deference, the Afghan president has to combat an insurgent-fed perception that he's little more than a weak, U.S.-backed puppet.
"Karzai wants to demonstrate to the Afghan people that he is showed — and Afghanistan has — respect," said an American official involved in planning the trip who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the goals more frankly.
Already strained U.S.-Afghan relations took a battering last month when President Barack Obama paid a surprise nighttime visit to Kabul. Obama and his advisers offered tepid public support for Karzai and chastised the Afghan president for not moving quickly enough to clean up his government.
Days after Obama left, Karzai delivered a provocative public scolding of the United States. In the speech, Karzai suggested that the American-led military risked being seen as invaders and that Afghans might view Taliban fighters more as freedom fighters. The speech created dismay in Washington and fueled renewed frustrations with Karzai.
Next week's meetings are designed to open a more cooperative new chapter as Afghanistan heads into what's expected to be a pivotal phase.
Karzai is preparing to call a nationwide assembly to discuss how far the Afghan government should go in trying to secure a peace deal with the Taliban-led insurgency.
The U.S. is crafting a prolonged military-political campaign to gain full control of Kandahar, the southern Afghan city that was the Taliban birthplace.
U.S. officials may also press Karzai for assurances that his brother, Kandahar provincial leader Ahmed Wali Karzai, will support the Kandahar operation. Ahmed Wali Karzai is accused of helping fuel the country's drug trade and conducting unethical deals to amass millions of dollars, but U.S. officials said the president's half brother is a political force they can't ignore or isolate.
Strategists are looking to use the still-growing U.S. and Afghan military force to give Karzai more leverage in any future peace talks with the Taliban.
American and Afghan officials agree that Taliban leaders wanting to make peace must renounce violence and embrace the Afghan constitution.
Karzai has been quietly pursuing preliminary talks with Afghan insurgent leaders looking for a way to end the fighting, but it's still not clear when or how to engage the main Taliban leadership in Pakistan led by Mullah Omar.
Because of the bipartisan skepticism about Karzai in Washington, organizers of the trip said the visit is also designed to show that the Afghan government consists of more than just the president.
All his top ministers, including those in charge of security, the economy and anti-corruption investigations, will be joining him.
"I think he'll get an earful from U.S. lawmakers at all levels, but it's a bigger problem than one man," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who joined Berman last weekend on a short visit to Afghanistan. "And the solution also has to be bigger than one man."
To drive home the message of cooperation, the two most senior U.S. officials in Kabul will join Karzai: Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of international military forces in Afghanistan, and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. diplomat who privately advised Obama last fall that the Afghan president wasn't a worthy ally.
Since then, Eikenberry has publicly lauded Karzai and backed Obama's unfolding military plans.
Afghan officials also expect to push back against American criticism.
Mohammed Yasin Osmani, the head of Afghanistan's anti-corruption office, said the U.S. is wrong to blame Karzai for all the corruption.
"I do not deny that there is corruption in Afghanistan," Osmani said. "However, the international community is also dealing with billions of dollars. Isn't there corruption inside them? There is."
American officials are expected to press Karzai on his commitment to holding fair parliamentary elections this fall.
Last, year, Karzai was criticized for overseeing a fraud-tainted presidential election that ended with the Afghan president taking office for a second five-year term.
In the aftermath, Karzai sought to strip international elections officials of their watchdog authority in Afghanistan. While Karzai has worked out a compromise with the U.N., his political rivals have little confidence that they'll be able to compete fairly in the parliamentary elections.
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