Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Deep Rift Seen in Afghan Talks ; Ahead of Karzai Meeting with Obama, Analysts Warn of Sharp Differences

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Deep Rift Seen in Afghan Talks ; Ahead of Karzai Meeting with Obama, Analysts Warn of Sharp Differences

Article excerpt

Radically different expectations from their meeting on Friday could cause new tensions in the notoriously fraught relationship between President Barack Obama and President Hamid Karzai.

The last time President Barack Obama and President Hamid Karzai spoke face to face, it was in a video conference call Sept. 21, and Mr. Obama, distracted by his re-election bid in a campaign in which the war in Afghanistan was barely discussed, fended off Mr. Karzai's most probing questions about American intentions.

On Friday, the two leaders will finally have that conversation at the White House. For Mr. Karzai, it is likely to prove a jolting recognition of how dramatically Mr. Obama has scaled back his ambitions in a conflict he once dubbed a war of necessity.

Now, he is even entertaining an option of leaving behind no American troops whatsoever after 2014, when the NATO combat mission ends.

European nations are under even heavier domestic political pressures than Mr. Obama not to remain in Afghanistan in a significant way, and allied officials have said that if the United States opts for a minimal troop presence in Afghanistan, the Europeans' presence will probably be cut even more sharply.

Emboldened by what they assert are gains against Qaeda operatives, administration officials said Mr. Obama was leaning toward a more aggressive timetable for withdrawing troops than his own commander in Afghanistan initially recommended.

As the White House weighs options for the size of a residual military force in Afghanistan that range from roughly 3,000 to about 9,000 troops, Mr. Obama has directed his advisors to answer a basic question: Is such a force even necessary to carry out the narrow counter-terrorism objectives the United States has for postwar Afghanistan?

Mr. Karzai, Afghan officials said, is coming to the meeting with far different expectations. He is counting on a residual American force of at least 15,000 troops to advise the Afghan security forces in their fight against the Taliban insurgency and carry out raids against Al Qaeda. And he is hoping that the United States will supply the Afghan army with heavy-duty military equipment, like fighter planes and armored personnel carriers.

Those radically different expectations, analysts said, could cause new tensions in a relationship between Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai that has been notoriously fraught over issues like corruption, civilian casualties, and threats to Afghan sovereignty.

"There's been a steady rollback of our objectives of what's good enough in Afghanistan," said Vali Nasr, a former senior State Department official who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan. "We seem to be giving up pieces of this, one at a time."

"If you're Karzai, you're basically now facing the same calculation that Maliki did in Iraq, 'if you're not willing to stay in large numbers, why do I need you?"' said Mr. Nasr, who is now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, referring to Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister.

It is a measure of the disconnect between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Obama that Afghan officials involved in preparing his trip said the sense among the Afghan leader's inner circle was that Mr. Karzai was coming to the United States with the upper hand in talks over troops.

In Mr. Karzai's view, said these officials and other people close to the president, a robust American presence in Afghanistan after 2014 is a strategic necessity for the United States -- vital to keeping Al Qaeda off balance and Iran and Pakistan at bay.

"They are absolutely convinced Americans need Afghanistan," said a person involved in planning the trip. They "think they are indispensable, they think they have all the leverage," he said. …

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