By Russell Berman and Sam Youngman - 05/12/10 12:44 AM EDT
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s meetings in Washington this week will be critical to securing congressional approval of a $33 billion war funding bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday.
“We’re at a critical moment, because we’re going to have to take a vote on this,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters at a briefing following her trip to Afghanistan over the weekend.
“I think we all agree that the mission is a necessary one to protect our national security. The question is, what are the prospects for success?” the Speaker said. “What is the commitment of President Karzai in terms of governance, ending corruption, promoting security and recognizing” the role of women?
Pelosi said she would have to wait until Karzai’s visit concludes this week before gauging the support of her caucus for a funding vote leaders hope to hold before the Memorial Day break. She reiterated she would not whip votes for the war bill as she did last year, when Republican opposition forced Democrats to scramble for votes among anti-war members on an Afghanistan authorization bill.
“Members make their own decisions,” Pelosi said. “It’s a different kind of vote.”
A member of the House Progressive Caucus who is a self-described “skeptic” of President Barack Obama’s war strategy, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) said she would use Karzai’s visit this week to make “an independent decision” on whether to support the funding bill.
Pelosi declined to say whether she considered Karzai a “reliable strategic partner” for the U.S., saying she would leave it to Obama to make that determination. But she said Karzai’s reliability would be crucial to a U.S. plan for success in Afghanistan. “Central to that plan is the reliability of the partner we have, and that’s the message we brought to President Karzai,” Pelosi said.
Karzai has come under intense criticism from some lawmakers for ongoing corruption in his government along with incendiary comments he has made in recent months, including the suggestion that he might join the Taliban. Yet the Obama administration has tried to calm the waters with the Afghan leader in an effort to improve relations and bolster the war effort.
Karzai met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday in the first of a series of meetings with senior U.S. officials. He will head to the Capitol on Wednesday for bipartisan meetings, first with Senate leaders and then with Pelosi and other House lawmakers.
In a joint appearance at the State Department, Clinton and Karzai exchanged warm words and pledged a commitment to the U.S.-Afghanistan partnership. Clinton highlighted progress in the country while emphasizing that security — and the threat of terrorism — remained an ongoing challenge. The U.S., she said, had “no illusions about the difficult road ahead.”
“Progress in Afghanistan is real, but it is also fragile,” Clinton said. She noted that Afghan police forces have suffered a high number of casualties and that the nation’s government has been the target of assassination attempts. “So it will take time and persistence to cement the gains already made and to secure more as we confront the challenges.”
Clinton also applauded recent efforts by Karzai to crack down on corruption, and she publicly nudged him on the issue of women’s rights.
“We look forward, Mr. President, to the inclusion of women in all aspects of your reintegration and reconciliation efforts and in all aspects of Afghan society,” the secretary said. “We share your perspective that Afghanistan’s women are critical to the country’s reconstruction and stabilization and must be afforded opportunities to contribute fully.”
While neither Clinton nor Karzai specifically mentioned the recent dust-ups between the two nations, both acknowledged that there would be disagreements from time to time. “That is the sign of a mature relationship and the sign of a steady relationship,” Karzai said.
Karzai offered thanks to Clinton and U.S. leaders for the sacrifice of American troops, and he pledged that Afghanistan would remain a strong ally of the U.S. after the war.
At the Capitol, Pelosi and four other House Democrats described their weekend trip in terms of pressing the cause of women’s rights. They said they insisted to Karzai that an enhanced role for women was key to security efforts at the center of the U.S. mission. At one point, Pelosi’s eyes welled with tears as she displayed red bracelets that female soldiers had given to her as gifts on the trip.
Pelosi’s remarks came hours after Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said House leaders expected more from Karzai. “There is substantial corruption in Afghanistan. Everyone agrees on that,” Hoyer said at his weekly press briefing. “Whether Mr. Karzai is up to confronting that or not, the fact is that substantial corruption exists.
“President Karzai and others in Afghanistan have a responsibility, and they have a need to … eliminate corruption, which undermines the stability of their country, undermines their credibility with the Afghan people,” Hoyer said, “and the evidence to date has not been as hopeful as we would like.”
Nonetheless, he said the U.S. recognized that Karzai was the elected leader of Afghanistan and would continue working with him.
Asked about Hoyer’s comments, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs noted positive steps that Karzai has taken to combat corruption and improve the Afghan government. “We believe there are steps that they’ve taken and we believe there are more steps that they have to take,” Gibbs said. He added that “the president is focused on substance.”
“We’re not going to get bogged down in atmospherics or personalities,” Gibbs said.
Hoyer said Congress’s “objective” was to pass the war funding bill before the Memorial Day recess, although he said House leaders preferred that the Senate approve it first. “It saves some time if the Senate does it first, “ he said.
However, Pelosi said later that she did not know which chamber would act first.
This story was updated at 8:44 p.m.