US turns on the charm to secure Karzai's support for new offensive

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The Independent Online

Afghan president Hamid Karzai was fêted in Washington yesterday as part of frantic diplomatic efforts to secure his blessing for a massive US-led offensive in Kandahar due this summer.

President Karzai was entertained by some of his previously most vocal critics as the US prepares for an offensive to secure the Pashtun heartland of Kandahar. The mission is fundamental to the blueprint for war presented by General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, and will help pave the way for American forces to start withdrawing from the conflict by the date set by Barack Obama, July 2011.

The main part of the offensive on the birthplace of the Taliban cannot take place without the Afghan government's approval. Washington was taking pains yesterday to ensure President Karzai was treated as an honoured and important ally. In contrast, he privately complained of being treated with condescension and lectured to during a previous trip to Washington.

During a rare visit to Kandahar last month, President Karzai pointedly asked tribal elders at a public meeting whether they wanted similar military action in their area. The response from the vast majority was an unequivocal "no". He promised that no operation would take place without their consent.

Western officials have subsequently insisted that President Karzai has authorised the Kandahar offensive, but this has been firmly denied by the Afghan leader's office.

Following a meeting with Mr Karzai yesterday, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said that highly publicised differences between President Karzai and the Obama administration, showed: "A level of trust that is essential to any meaningful dialogue and enduring strategic partnership."

A significant, and, for the Afghan President, highly personal source of friction has been the activities of Ahmed Wali Karzai, his brother, who has been accused of having connections to drug trafficking in Kandahar.

One aim of the Nato operation in Kandahar is to "clean up" the local leadership, who are closely allied to militia commanders and drug lords. There is little doubt this would involve dealing with Ahmed Wali Karzai and the Afghan President was outraged to discover that a senior US military officer had proposed putting his brother on Nato's "kill or capture" list.

However, Western pronouncements about Ahmed Wali Karzai have changed. Last week, a senior British official who works closely with Gen McChrystal in Kabul, said that Nato now sees "that there would be a role" for the Afghan President's brother, who heads the provincial council, after the Kandahar mission. "He can play a part in maintaining stability in the future," said the official, "and let's not forget that no provable evidence has ever been presented that he is involved in drugs".

The "window" for a large military operation is limited with two conferences in Kabul before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which starts in the middle of August. No offensive military action will be countenanced by Nato during these periods.

While Nato wrestles with the political and logistical difficulties of getting the Kandahar mission on the way, President Karzai can relish being entertained in Washington by some of his severest critics in the administration before his meeting with President Obama today. Mrs Clinton, who expressed deep concern about public corruption in Afghanistan, took him for a stroll through grounds of a private enclave in Georgetown. Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative to the region who had a furious row with Mr Karzai over electoral fraud, was dispatched to Andrews Air Force base at 6am to greet him. Vice-President Joe Biden, who also clashed with Mr Karzai during a Kabul visit, will be his host for dinner at the vice-presidential mansion. Former Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, who described Mr Karzai as a "not adequate strategic partner" in a leaked diplomatic cable five months ago, escorted him on his flight to Washington. He then appeared, under White House orders, before the media to say he had full faith in the Afghan President.

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