Obama and Karzai will seek reconciliation 

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Obama will meet in Washington later this week with both men understanding an uncomfortable truth — they need each other, but they don’t trust each other.

Obama needs Karzai to cut corruption in his government and stop flirting with Taliban extremists if the United States is to have any hope of beginning a scheduled troop pullout in 14 months. And Karzai needs U.S. backing to hold his increasingly tenuous grip on power.

“Karzai is in the pocket of the Taliban,” said a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Everyone knows how corrupt he is. We unfortunately have to deal with that. What we also have to consider is, if he’s removed, will somebody worse take his place?”

That need for both sides to make the best of a bad situation will shadow the Washington talks, experts said.

“The principal gain that both Obama and Karzai would like to get is to put the relationship, which has been out of kilter, back on track,” said Arturo Munoz, a senior political, counterinsurgency and counterterrorism analyst at the Rand Corp. “Karzai feels insulted and unappreciated. Both sides have to take a deep breath and say we’ve got to work with each other. Obama has put out the word to stop trashing Karzai.”

The two may have little time to resolve differences before the situation in Afghanistan becomes even more precarious. The Afghan Taliban is preparing a spring offensive against the U.S.-led coalition and raising a larger fighting force in the north, Afghan and U.S. officials told the Washington Examiner.

Afghan Embassy officials in Washington confirmed Karzai’s meeting with Obama is set for Wednesday but would not comment on what will be discussed during his weeklong visit.

The administration’s plans for a drawdown by July 2011 and reconciliation talks with moderate elements of the Taliban will be part of the planned discussions, said a U.S. official, who asked not to be named.

Late last year the Obama administration said it would consider reconciliation talks with moderate Taliban members. It was part of a new strategy to win the war but one that has not boded well for tribes in the north, who fear any negotiation with the Taliban will return Afghanistan back to its pre-Sept. 11 state.

In March, Karzai held talks with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of the second-largest insurgency group, Hizb-i-Islami, and a man designated a terrorist by the United States.

Munoz, who served 29 years as a senior analyst for the CIA, said that Karzai has been attempting the same approach for reconciliation with the Taliban since 2001, when the Bush administration “shot down the idea.”

Although the Obama administration has been open to the idea of reconciliation, the Taliban is fractured. “I don’t see any indication that the Taliban is a good negotiating partner or wants to make a deal at this time,” Munoz said. “As for the Taliban in the north, I don’t necessarily believe it’s an attempt to mount a major insurgency but to increase major terrorism acts in the northern region to destabilize it.

According to Afghan officials and residents in Kunduz province, a northern area bordering Tajikistan, the insurgency has grown to nearly 4,500 fighters.

Those interviewed by the Examiner in recent days said they are “deeply concerned” with growing movement of Taliban in Kunduz, and that the large number of insurgents in the region “will eventually threaten the stability and safety” of Kabul.

“There are tribal militias trying to fight the Taliban in the northern province of Kunduz,” said an Afghan official with direct knowledge of the Taliban in the northern region. “The people feel abandoned by Karzai, and some feel they will be abandoned again by the U.S. and left to fend off the Taliban themselves.”

A U.S. intelligence official said, “We know the militias in the north are stockpiling weapons to fight the Taliban — they don’t trust us or the Karzai government to take care of the problem and fear that we’re going to desert them.”

U.S. counterterrorism officials conceded the insurgency is growing in Kunduz, but said the Afghan estimates of the number of fighters appear exaggerated.

“Taliban militants in Kunduz have been increasingly active in attacking coalition forces, who are aggressively responding,” a U.S. counterterrorism official said.

scarter@washingtonexaminer.com

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