The Karzai Trip: What’s really in store for Afghanistan?

I am way behind on this, but I followed Karzai’s visit last week as well as reactions from key figures like Abdullah Abdullah. I attended Karzai’s talk at USIP and then Abdullah’s at the New America Foundation. I live tweeted both @RFE_Press_Room

For the past week, all eyes have been on Afghanistan with the arrival of President Karzai and his Cabinet for their week’s stay in D.C. Karzai met with President Obama, Secretary Clinton and had a chance to visit Walter Reed Hospital. While the trip was meant to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan, I’m not sure if it went beyond that.

I was able to attend the USIP wrap-up talk with Clinton and Karzai, which turned into a bit of a love fest with only one hard-hitting question from the press (they only took about three or four questions anyway).

Karzai reinforced the hospitality he and his cabinet received upon their visit and said it indicated a strengthening relationship between the two countries. In the past few months, the relationship has suffered due to hostility within the country from locals who oppose the U.S. backed government.

Karzai said visiting Walter Reed showed him first-hand the great sacrifice the U.S. is taking in rebuilding Afghanistan. Obama also spoke of lives lost, but he referred to Afghans who were killed in the line of fire. People are dying in Afghanistan, both from western allies and Afghanistan—just yesterday a report came out saying the death toll has reached 1,000 (U.S. deaths) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/18/1000-american-deaths-afghanistan_n_580312.html. I couldn’t find a number for civilian casualties…tweet me @ladansusan if you do.

President Obama reaffirmed the U.S.’s commitment to a stable and “prosperous” Afghanistan through both military and policy initiatives. He said we will continue our military effort to stop Taliban forces and will train security forces so U.S. troops can withdrawal in the summer of 2011. Over half of the forces President Obama ordered have arrived in the country and the remainder are due to arrive by this summer.

He said in a press conference last week that, “The United States supports the efforts of the Afghan government to open the door to Taliban who cut their ties with al Qaeda, abandon violence and accept the Afghan constitution, including, respect for human rights.”

On civilian casualties, Obama said the U.S. bears the burden:

“Let me be very clear. When there’s a civilian casualty,that is not just a political problem for me. I am ultimately accountable for somebody not on the battlefield who got killed. That is something that I have to carry with me. So we do not take that lightly. We have an interest in reducing civilian casualties not because it’s a problem for President Karzai, but because I don’t want civilians killed. And we are going to do everything we can to prevent that.”

Clinton reemphasized the strengthening U.S./Afghan relationship in her remarks at USIP:

“From our side this was a highly successful visit with substances discussion, and it took relationship to higher level. It serves as a good starting point for the efforts to rewrite and refurbish our strategic partnership declaration.

She said they crafted a full government response—one that doesn’t stop with an agreement between presidents. The partnership is being formed at all levels of government in the process, she said.

As for the ACTUAL withdrawal of troops, Clinton clarified the summer 2011 deadline. Troops will begin early stages of withdrawal depending on the situation in Afghanistan in 2011.

“It’s a conditions-based decision,” she said.  But the relationship will continue after troops fully withdrawal. Many Afghans feel that the U.S. will leave them behind like it did after the withdrawal of the Soviets.

The Afghan takeover of their security that will happen in the next few years should be completed by 2014, said Karzai. But of course, as Clinton said, this could be a condition-based deadline.

Clinton reminded the crowd that success in Afghanistan translates to success for the U.S. It is in our interest to be there, she said, and the upcoming years will reflect the convergence of the two respective nations’ interests.

As for the Taliban: Both Karzai and the Obama administration have been in support of reintegrating certain members who defected out of desperation or poverty. Winning the confidence of the people would ensure that fewer Afghans would join the Taliban out of hate for the U.S.-backed government.

The Taliban’s presence has a chilling effect, she said of their activities in Kandahar. “In any counterinsurgency the goal is to win confidence of people so they become your allies. I think this goal is being extremely well-planned,” she said.

The reintegration process means potentially striking compromises with the Taliban, which worries many women who have been fighting for their rights in the area for decades.

Interestingly enough, Karzai said he “absolutely” believes there can be a free and fair election this coming year….

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former presidential candidate against Karzai and head of the Coalition for Hope and Change, gave his alternative view of developments in Afghanistan the following week (last Tuesday).

He said the Afghans had reason to hear U.S. abandonment because of our withdrawal after the Soviet Union invaded.

“This has lead to many evils,” he said referring to the rise of the Taliban that followed.

“Our humanity cannot afford to lose this war. Our civilization cannot afford it. Billions and billions of peace-loving people cannot remain hostage to the evil ideals of a tiny minority of the people that are threatening our peaceful existence,” he said.

While acknowledging the great sacrifice the U.S. has given, he said the Afghan government has lost their sense of direction.

“He has created false hope,” he said of Karzai’s plan to reintegrate the Taliban.

Many Afghans think it’s an attempt to bring the Taliban back.

“We are in an environment where we’re losing support of the people, while the people are in support of the (democratic) process,” he said.

This time, he said, women will not take no for an answer. Movements forward have been made, and if negotiations mean taking them back, the people will not stand for it.

“Some of the positive elements in human rights are not reversible because of the people, but we shouldn’t allow opportunity to test it,” he said.

So what’s in store for Afghanistan? Will talks with Taliban members prove to be effective or another step backwards in terms of human rights and the trust of the Afghan people? How will the peace jirga stabilize the country? Will troops REALLY leave in the summer of 2011 or will it be more of a “conditions-based” decision like Iraq? Stay tuned

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