Complaints in Hand, Afghan President Heads to Washington
KABUL — When Afghan President Hamid Karzai visits Washington this week, he’ll bring with him a list of complaints he has enumerated for months in public speeches — accusations that the United States has fomented corruption in Afghanistan and continues to violate the country’s sovereignty.
Karzai’s top advisers say he has been forced to go public with that critique because meetings with U.S. officials here have yielded no progress on the issues he values most. Now he’ll share the list of grievances with an American president in the midst of disentangling the U.S. military from its longest war.
The prospect of a diminished U.S. presence in Afghanistan hasn’t dulled the tone of Karzai’s critique, even though he claims to want a long-term American security footprint here. That footprint would be welcomed, his advisers say, but only if it is accompanied by concessions on a number of seemingly intractable issues.
“The world needs us more than we need them,” said Abdul Karim Khurram, Karzai’s chief of staff.
Karzai wants U.S. officials to stop approving contracts “with warlords who use the money for their own gains,” according to his spokesman, Aimal Faizi. Karzai said in a speech last month that corruption is “imposed on us, and it is meant to weaken our system” — an assertion roundly rejected by U.S. officials in Afghanistan.
Karzai wants a full handover of the Parwan military prison, which U.S. officials approved last year but later rescinded, saying it appeared that Afghan officials were planning to release a slew of suspected terrorists.
He also wants a stronger Afghan air force, an end to U.S. military operations in villages and a guarantee that his country will be protected from cross-border incursions, particularly by Pakistan-based insurgents. “Fighting them in Afghanistan is not defeating them. It is adding to the fire,” Karzai told Time magazine last year. Those pledges, too, will be hard to secure.
As Karzai presses those demands, he and his advisers have extended their critique to the larger legacy of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan, which they say have failed to deliver security, despite the billions spent.
“The war has been fought in a very incorrect manner. … It didn’t improve the situation, but it worsened it,” Khurram said.
In addition to meeting with President Obama in Washington, Karzai is scheduled to give a speech at George Washington University. After narrowing down potential topics, one that remained on the table is, “The things which have gone wrong and which we could have done differently,” according to an Afghan official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the possible content of the speech before the event.
Karzai has addressed the topic several times from his palace in Kabul, leading some U.S. officials to believe that the invectives it typically entails were intended to satisfy a domestic audience, not to inspire action by Afghanistan’s international partners. In Washington, a Karzai speech aimed squarely at American failings would probably be received differently.
Still, many here argue that Karzai’s leverage is limited. He could refuse to sign a bilateral security agreement that is currently being negotiated with the United States. But his closest advisers say that a U.S. military role beyond 2014 is in Afghanistan’s best interest.
Karzai could relinquish some of the demands that U.S. officials see as particularly unrealistic, such as his request for a list of all Western contracts given to Afghans with connections to the Afghan government — a list that U.S. officials say doesn’t exist.
But Karzai’s advisers say he will continue to raise the issues he feels are important, particularly when his allies ignore them.
“The reason why the president speaks out about these issues is because no one listens in private meetings,” Khurram said.
For their part, officials in Washington said they plan to consult with Karzai on the possible size and character of the U.S. mission beyond 2014. They will also press him on his commitment to improving transparency and governance — both conditions attached to $16 billion in aid approved last year at an international donors conference in Tokyo.