President Barack Obama’s warm welcome of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the White House this week was meant to showcase their ties at a time when relations have been deeply strained. But their positive words didn’t translate on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers in both parties were skeptical about the Afghanistan leader’s reliability as a partner.
Obama and Karzai went before the cameras Wednesday as they headed in and out meetings with members of the U.S. national security team and their Afghan counterparts. The meetings were aimed at easing months of sniping between the two nations: The U.S. has criticized Karzai for tolerating corruption and drug trafficking, while Karzai has accused the United States of failing to provide the resources he needs to govern.
Obama cited “very serious challenges” still facing Afghanistan and acknowledged there have been “setbacks” in relations, but he downplayed tensions between the two nations. “This visit is an opportunity for us to assess the progress of our shared strategy in Afghanistan and to advance the strong partnership between our two nations, one that’s based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” Obama said.
Similarly, Karzai offered his “deep, heartfelt gratitude” for America’s help and said his country now has a voice that “would have not been possible without the sacrifices and the resources that the United States and our other allies have put in.”
But House Democrats said the White House show of camaraderie did little to change their perceptions of Karzai.
“I still have my suspicions on whether he’s going to be a good actor,” said Rep. John Boccieri, one of three House Members who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Ohio Democrat said there needs to be more pressure on Karzai to “turn the country back over to the Afghan people” since U.S. soldiers are being stationed there in the meantime.
[IMGCAP(1)]”The story’ should be less about how cozy Presidents Obama and Karzai have become … and more about how both presidents can, and must, improve the lives of everyday Afghans, from a local development, good governance and human security perspective,” said Rep. Mike Honda, chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Afghanistan Task Force.
The California Democrat said the Obama-Karzai talks “must center around changing, not continuing, the modus operandi in Afghanistan,” which hasn’t put enough focus on withdrawal deadlines, monitoring aid effectiveness and an Afghan-centric approach to reconstruction efforts.
Each of those pieces “has been absent. That is the story,” he said.
Republicans also raised concerns about Karzai’s reliability but said Obama doesn’t have much choice but to work with him.
“He’s all we’ve got. That’s the bottom line,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The Arizona Republican said he has met with Karzai twice during Congressional delegations to Kabul.
“I’m not happy with the way things have gone over there. You wonder where the old Karzai was that we had in 2005,” said Flake, pointing to his past pledges to take on the war on the narcotics trade.
Sen. Susan Collins said she has faith that Obama is being more blunt in his discussions with Karzai behind closed doors.
“I know he is sending a very strong message because he recognizes that, whether we like it or not, President Karzai is our partner in Afghanistan and we need to have him be successful,” the Maine Republican said.
Skepticism about Karzai has fueled the ire of anti-war Democrats who say it is time to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
“I’ve got whiplash following this policy,” Rep. Jim McGovern said. “One week, we’re scolding Karzai. The next week, he’s being wined and dined in Washington with the best china. I think he’s an unreliable partner. I don’t think we have a clear policy. And at a minimum, I’d like a clearly defined exit strategy.”
The Massachusetts Democrat said he is still pushing for a vote on his proposal to impose a timetable for troop withdrawal as part of supplemental war spending bill. If not his bill, which has 83 co-sponsors including four Republicans, he said he would support a separate vote on war funding.
“Members shouldn’t be asked to vote for the entire supplemental with the Afghanistan funding in it,” he said. “Some of us would like to have to an opportunity to reinforce the message to the administration that we want an exit strategy.”
Rep. Alcee Hastings agreed: “I have exacting concerns about our effort in Afghanistan. … As Karzai the man is concerned, I do not have confidence that he is a reliable partner. But I don’t know if that is driven by who Karzai is, or what Afghanistan is.”
The Florida Democrat said that he has never voted against a war supplemental but that if a clean bill were to come to the floor today, he would oppose it.
Congressional Democratic leaders have given subtle indications of concerns with Karzai but have been careful not to say too much to jeopardize international ties. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who recently returned from a Congressional delegation to Afghanistan, dodged questions Tuesday about whether she views Karzai as a reliable partner.
“I believe that President Obama will make, has been making, that judgment,” the California Democrat said. “We are only [in Afghanistan] in our own national security. But it requires a plan with a reliable partner. I think he understands that. You know, I trust the president’s judgment.”
Both Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid met with Karzai on Wednesday.
The Nevada Democrat issued a statement afterward saying he called on Karzai to step up the role of the Afghan government in stabilizing the country. “I expressed my concerns to President Karzai about corruption in the Afghan government and the need for Afghanistan to be a reliable partner to help us defuse terror threats,” Reid said.
Kate Hunter and Jessica Brady contributed to this report.