Karzai comes to U.S. as administration tries to smooth the waters

The Obama administration hopes to smooth the waters with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai this week during his visit to Washington.

Karzai, the first Afghan president after the fall of the Taliban, has been roiled by allegations of corruption and a nasty presidential election battle last fall in which he was declared the victor only after his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out of the runoff, saying a "transparent election is not possible."

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Tension has been thick between Kabul and the U.S., too.

Just days after President Barack Obama left a visit with Karzai in Kabul this March, the Afghan president stood before parliament and accused Westerners of committing "huge ... vast fraud" at the polls.

He also made comments about joining the Taliban if the U.S. did not stop its "meddling," stoking the ire of the administration and lawmakers alike.

With Karzai in town, Afghanistan will be a major issue on the White House's agenda at the beginning of this week.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs will hold a press conference with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the international security forces in Afghanistan, and Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry on Monday.

The next day, Karzai will hold an "intensive series of meetings" and make joint remarks to the press at the State Department with Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama welcomes Karzai to the White House on Wednesday.

Karzai will visit Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday morning, and the White House said he will also have the opportunity to meet with members of Congress during his trip.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that Obama told his top foreign policy aides at a meeting last month to show more respect for Karzai in the public arena, though an administration official later told Agence France-Presse, "I wouldn't say he ordered people to desist.

"He did tell his administration that we need to be focused on working on a collaborative basis with our Afghan partners, and to stay focused on that effort rather than getting distracted," the official said, according to AFP.

Karzai wrote in the Post on Sunday that the U.S.-Afghan partnership "has not been an easy ride."

"We have had our share of disagreements over some issues and approaches," the Afghan president wrote. "What has kept us together is an overriding strategic vision of an Afghanistan whose peace and stability can guarantee the safety of the Afghan and the American peoples."

Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, said Thursday on MSNBC that Karzai has committed to "inclusivity and transparency" in weeding out corruption and ensuring that a smooth transition will be possible for the U.S. to wind down operations by the target date of July 2011.

"I think you'll hear those echoed when he comes here," said Petraeus, who met with Karzai three weeks ago in Kabul. "This is a very important visit."

"I think it is in everyone’s interest to make sure there are no misunderstandings, no misconceptions, about what we hope to see and what we expect from his second term," Clinton said on "60 Minutes."

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said on a Friday conference call with reporters that the purpose of the visit is to keep the strategy focused on "reversing the Taliban's momentum, extending security for the Afghan people and partnering with Afghan security forces and the Afghan government to build their capacity so that they can begin a transition to take responsibility for their future."

Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, special assistant to the president for Afghanistan and Pakistan, noted that the Karzai visit comes at the halfway point between Obama's West Point address, in which he laid out his plans for Afghanistan, and the one-year administration review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy.

It also precedes a Consultative Peace Jirga to be hosted by Karzai in the coming weeks, and parliamentary elections in September.

"By July we anticipate President Karzai will host the first-ever major international conference on Afghan soil in Kabul," Lute said. "And it's at this Kabul conference in July when we expect that the Karzai government will deliver action plans from the commitments made at his inaugural address and then later in the London conference."

Lute said Karzai has taken "a number of steps," including launching an anti-corruption government oversight office and mandating disclosure of financial assets by senior Afghan officials.

"We'll be interested in hearing [this] week about additional steps that he plans and how we can best support those steps as his partner," Lute said.

Another controversy on Capitol Hill has been Karzai's effort to reach out to Taliban who agree to give up violence and ties to al Qaeda via the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Plan — and Karzai's heated suggestion in that April parliament speech that he might have to join the Taliban himself if the U.S. does not stop “meddling.”

"The remarks he’s made, I can’t imagine that anyone in this country found them anything other than troubling ... when the Afghan leaders take steps to improve governance and root out corruption, then the president will say kind words," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said days later when asked if Karzai was still an ally.

And even though the White House will be attempting to make a fresh start this week, one lawmaker last week showed the sparring is still fresh in the minds of Congress.

"If I had been president when he threatened to go over to the Taliban, my response would have been, 'Don't let the screen door hit you in the rear end,' for what it's worth," Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) said last week at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on developments in Afghanistan.

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