Gates: U.S. has done 'lousy job' listening to concerns of Afghanistan leader

When Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai raises concerns privately with U.S. officials, his American counterparts do not always listen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday.

"We have done a lousy job listening to President Karzai," Gates told the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee.

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Karzai has at times angered both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations with public outbursts that have been highly critical of Washington, leading some officials and security experts to question whether he truly is a U.S. ally.

Reps. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.) questioned whether Washington is erring in placing so much behind Karzai and his administration.

Moran led off, asking whether signs of corruption within the Afghanistan government are too much for the U.S.-led effort there to overcome.

Gates replied that U.S. officials cannot "leave this place alone" as they did in the late 1980s, which experts say allowed the Taliban to seize power and al Qeada leaders to plot the 9/11 attacks from their soil.

Next up was Dicks, who pressed Gates on the question of corruption and Karzai's ability to help further U.S. policy goals there.

Afghanistan would not appear on his list of the world's "most corrupt governments," Gates said.

His voice rising a bit, the outgoing Defense secretary then added that Karzai has attempted to privately discuss with U.S. officials "everything he has blown up about."

His outbursts have come, Gates said, when he reaches "the end of his rope." Gates acknowledged that Karzai has sometimes "gone too far" when he makes his gripes public.

Other highlights from what likely was Gates's last appearance before the subcommittee:

* Dicks and fellow panel member Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), sparred over last Thursday's announcement that the Air Force had picked Boeing to build new aerial tankers. Boeing's rival, EADS, would have built its flying gas stations in Alabama. Bonner questioned how the service three years ago picked an EADS plane, only to choose Boeing's aircraft this time. Bonner also questioned whether Boeing can actually deliver planes by 2017.

In his response, Dicks replied that when government auditors ran the numbers three years ago, Boeing had the lower price — which was the deciding factor this time. He also raised eyebrows in the hearing room when he added: "And, yet, we still lost." Defense observers have long joked that Dicks leads the congressional Boeing delegation. Lawmakers typically avoid using "we" when discussing defense firms important to their districts and states. The firm will do KC-45A work in Kansas and Washington state.

* The Pentagon worked with Lockheed Martin to bring down the cost of the recently completed contract for the fourth batch of F-35 fighters, and Gates expects "we can wring out" even more dollars from the next contract. A senior program official on Tuesday said talks with the company on a contract for the fifth F-35 production run are essentially on hold until Congress acts on a full 2011 defense spending measure.

* Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) said the defense spending measure for 2011 that was attached to a House-passed continuing resolution contains "a way to eliminate [Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle] termination costs and get something out" of that program. The Pentagon is seeking to terminate the Marines' amphibious vehicle program because it is too expensive, replacing it with a cheaper program.

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