WASHINGTON — The Obama administration worked Monday to patch up its strained relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai as he arrived in Washington, issuing carefully worded statements that he's the United States' partner in war, despite recent disputes.
Karzai's visit, which will culminate with meetings Wednesday at the White House, comes as President Barack Obama continues to send more troops to Afghanistan while he faces growing public skepticism about the war.
Even as Karzai arrived, a new report from a friendly Democratic research center criticized the administration as lacking a coherent war plan.
"Nearly nine years into the war, we lack clear answers to two fundamental questions: How does this war end? What is the desired sustainable end state in Afghanistan?" said the report from Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a research center heavy with former Clinton administration officials.
A new poll found that a majority of Americans think the war isn't worth the cost. The ABC News-Washington Post survey found that 44 percent think the war is worth it, while 52 percent don't.
The criticism complicates a tense relationship between the Obama administration and Karzai. Relations soured publicly around an Obama visit to Afghanistan at the end of March. White House National Security Adviser James Jones criticized Karzai's effort to rein in corruption and narcotics trafficking. Karzai reacted angrily, warning that the U.S. might be viewed as an invader and the Taliban as freedom fighters.
U.S. officials stuck to their talking points Monday, despite the fact that Karzai's re-election last year was marred by widespread evidence of fraud.
"He is the leader of Afghanistan. He is our partner. We are going to work with them to improve both the security and the governance in Afghanistan," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.
"President Karzai is the elected president of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a close friend and ally. And, of course, I highly respect President Karzai in that capacity," said Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. "As you know, every relationship, every bilateral relationship, especially one as close as we have with Afghanistan, they experience ups and downs.
"But what measures true partnership is the ability, when the stakes are as high as they are for Afghanistan and the United States of America, to be able to work our way through difficulties and come back together and still find ourselves well aligned."
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, who joined Eikenberry at the White House to brief reporters before Karzai's visit, said he had good rapport with Karzai, although his words suggested that others don't.
"I am one of the people with a good relationship with President Karzai," he said. "Mine is as a military commander, and as I support a wartime commander in chief, President Karzai, I think it's important that I have an effective, candid, responsible relationship. And I've been real happy with it thus far."
McChrystal and Eikenberry said they were optimistic that the counterinsurgency strategy Obama adopted last year will work.
In his report, however, Katulis said he couldn't get a clear picture of the Obama administration's plans for Afghanistan beyond its promise to send more troops now, help create popular support for the Afghan government and start withdrawing U.S. troops in 2011.
"I asked Obama administration officials and Afghan government representatives direct questions such as the estimated cost to completion for Afghanistan, a general estimate on how many Afghan government personnel will be needed to fill the various levels of Afghan institutions in order to make them viable and how progress will be measured," he wrote.
"Instead of clear answers, I usually heard general restatements of the basic principles of counterinsurgency. ... Like a religious creed, (counterinsurgency) mantras were repeated, but vague answers to the crucial implementation questions on institution-building remain the norm, which is a dangerous proposition."
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