Five Messages From the Obama-Karzai Press Conference
It’s time for a post-White House press conference listicle.
- Unity, Stand Together as One. The priority message that “I will take back with me to the Afghan people,” in President Hamid Karzai’s words, was the “strong, steady, long-term relationship with America.” Whatever turbulence exists in the relationship between Washington and Kabul — some of which, President Obama said, was “simply overblown” — the “greatest contributor” to Afghanistan, by far, is the United States. If Karzai remains concerned by the July 2011 date for beginning the transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces or by the occasional White House dissatisfaction with his commitment to clean governance, he didn’t sound like it. Instead, he said that “frankness will only add to the strength” of the U.S.-Afghan relationship, and that the two countries are “much more strongly related to each other today than we ever were before.” So much for Bush nostalgia.
- **The ‘Peace Jirga’ Will Be as Successful as the War Effort Allows It to Be. **A reporter expressed skepticism that the Taliban will embrace any reconciliation plan offered by a forthcoming “consultative peace jirga” in Kabul. That effort has been a signature agenda item for Karzai since the January international conference on Afghanistan in London, especially since polls show that the Afghan people badly want a negotiated end to the war. But while U.S. officials have been careful to emphasize the differences between reconciliation efforts with Taliban leaders and reintegration efforts to absorb low-level Taliban fighters, Karzai instead talked about the “thousands of Taliban who are not ideologically oriented, who are not part of al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks.” Those “country boys” have been radicalized, he said, “at times, [by] misconducted by us.”
Obama opened the reconciliation/reintegration distinction back up. He said the “the peace jirga [will] allow for a framework to move forward,” and the U.S. would support an Afghan-led effort to reconcile with insurgents who embrace the Afghan constitution, human rights and the rule of law and renounce al-Qaeda and other militancy. But he said that the “incentives” for a “portion of the Taliban to lay down arms and make peace with the Afghan government in part depends on our efforts in breaking their momentum militarily.” The war effort, in other words, will give the Afghan government an ability make peace from “the strongest possible position.”
- Let’s Not Talk About Corruption. You’ll be shocked to hear that persistent issues in Afghan government corruption or capacity to deliver services for the Afghan people were addressed only in general terms from a joint presidential White House press conference, for all the talk about “frankness.” Karzai pledged his “dedication and extreme care to ensure” that U.S. economic aid to Afghanistan is “spent well.” Obama said that he was encouraged by Karzai’s words and initial actions since his second inaugural, but there is “more to do.” That was about it for a central concern in U.S.-Afghan relations that made Amb. Karl Eikenberry question Karzai as a strategic partner last fall.
- **“Long-Term Relationship.” **Three words spoken very often by both presidents. “This is a long-term partnership that is not simply defined by our military presence,” Obama said. “After July 2011, we are still going to have an interest in making sure Afghanistan is secure.” Music to Karzai’s ears. Let’s see if Obama’s political enemies continue to misrepresent July 2011 as the beginning of a U.S. troop bugout.
- Civilian Casualties Must Be Avoided. They’re “not just a political problem for me,” Obama said about the most inflammatory issue in Afghan eyes. “I am ultimately accountable” for every civilian death in Afghanistan. In a surprisingly personal recognition, Obama said that civilian deaths are “something I have to carry with me.” Karzai praised Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s efforts to avoid mistakenly killing Afghan civilians, but recent reports indicate those casualties are again on the rise.