Obama, Karzai try to project unity as new reports raise doubts

McClatchy NewspapersMay 12, 2010 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai asserted Wednesday that progress is being made toward crushing the Taliban-led insurgency, but new studies on the Afghan army and police raise serious doubts about whether the strategy can succeed before a U.S. troop drawdown begins in July 2011.

Flanked by Karzai at a White House news conference, Obama urged Americans to have patience with the "joint strategy" that he unveiled in December to stabilize Afghanistan, defeat the insurgency and prevent the country's reversion to a Qaida sanctuary. He warned, however, that "there is going to be some hard fighting over the next couple of months."

He apparently was referring to the summer "fighting season" that's traditionally racked Afghanistan and that this year will see a drive to clear the Taliban from the southern city of Kandahar that's being supplemented by an additional 30,000 U.S. troops.

The joint news conference was the public high point of a tightly scripted four-day visit in which Karzai was feted, praised and lavished with the full red-carpet treatment by the U.S. administration, which is determined to reset a relationship scarred by feuding and anti-American tirades by the Afghan leader amid record bloodshed.

The administration concluded that the tensions were an obstacle to Afghan cooperation on a number of fronts central to Obama's strategy, especially the operations to drive the Taliban from their strongholds in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, turn them over to government control and jump-start economic development.

Moreover, U.S. officials want to reassure Karzai and ordinary Afghans — as well as regional powers that already are jockeying for influence — that the U.S. troop drawdown doesn't mean that the United States will abandon Afghanistan as it did after the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, which was followed by a vicious 12-year civil war.

"We are not suddenly as of July 2011 finished with Afghanistan," Obama said. "This is a long-term partnership that is not simply defined by our military presence."

Obama and Karzai sought to present a portrait of unity, saying that progress is being made by the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign, by an American effort to avert civilian casualties and by Karzai on his vows to clean up narcotics-fueled corruption and boost public services, the rule of law and good governance.

"Our solidarity today sends an unmistakable message to those who would stand in the way of Afghanistan's progress," Obama said. "They will try to drive us apart, but we will partner with the Afghan people for the long term, toward a future of greater security, prosperity, justice and progress. And I am absolutely convinced we will succeed."

Obama conceded that "there are going to be tensions in such a complicated and difficult environment and in a situation in which, on the ground, both Afghans and Americans are making enormous sacrifices."

However, he said, a lot of "perceived tensions" between the sides "were simply overstated."

"It's a real relationship," Karzai agreed. "It's based on some very hard realities. We are in a campaign against terrorism together. There are days that we are happy. There are days that we are not happy.

"The bottom line is that we are much more strongly related to each other than we ever were before. That is a good message that I will take back to the Afghan people."

U.S.-led international efforts have made considerable progress in helping to bring stability, education, health care and development to many parts of the country of 32 million people since the 2001 invasion drove the Taliban and al-Qaida leadership into neighboring Pakistan.

However, the Taliban and allied groups — aided by al-Qaida and the former Bush administration's diversion of U.S. forces, time and money to Iraq — staged a major comeback that's surged as U.S. commanders struggle to implement Obama's strategy.

New reports on the Afghan army and police — each a crucial element of Obama's plan to transfer responsibility for districts cleared of insurgents to Afghan government control as the U.S. troop drawdown begins — underscore the enormous hurdles that persist.

A report released Wednesday by the International Crisis Group, a respected conflict-prevention organization, says that the Afghan army is suffused with corruption, desertions, ethnic tensions and disputes between its highest leaders.

The report warns that Obama's plan to expand the Afghan National Army to 240,000 troops from 90,000 by 2013 could worsen those problems and "risk the army's disintegration after the withdrawal of international forces."

A report by the Rand Corp. research center on the Afghan Civil Order Police, an elite unit that's playing a key role in Helmand and Kandahar, found that the contingent is infected with the same problems of corruption and ineptitude that plague other police forces.

ANCOP members have set up checkpoints to shake down residents, been kicked out of the unit for drug use and been shunned in some areas as outsiders, according to U.S. officials briefed on the Rand Corp. analysis, who spoke to McClatchy only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Relations between Kabul and Washington have been brittle since Obama took office last year, shaken by U.S. criticism of Karzai's failure to crack down on official corruption, his dubious dependability, his reliance on a patronage network of warlords and family members, and the massive fraud that marred his re-election to another term last August.

For his part, Karzai has complained about civilian casualties caused by U.S. military operations and launched tirades against the United States and his other international backers, reflecting his unpopularity among ordinary Afghans, who are angry that the war is still raging nearly nine years after the U.S.-led invasion.

"We have an interest in reducing civilian casualties not because it's a problem for President Karzai. We have an interest in reducing civilian casualties because I don't want civilians killed," said Obama, who noted that the Taliban have killed more civilians.

A Pentagon report last month said the overall level of violence in Afghanistan rose 87 percent from February 2009 to March 2010. More than 1,760 international troops — including 1,068 Americans — have been killed, according to iCasualties.org, a website that tracks casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tens of thousands of Afghan security forces, officials and civilians have been killed and wounded.

There are currently 102,000 troops from 46 nations, including the United States, in Afghanistan. There will be 98,000 U.S. troops there when the surge is completed later this summer.

Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/05/12/v-print/1626652/obama-karzai-strive-to-project.html#ixzz0noK1IEcw

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