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White House red carpet’s out for Hamid Karzai visit to Washington

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has tried sidelining, snubbing and strong-arming Hamid Karzai, with little to show for each approach. Now the administration is trying to hold its tongue and show a little love.

The Afghan leader, darling of the previous Republican administration of President George W. Bush, will get red carpet treatment when he comes to Washington for his widest engagement with U.S. leaders since winning re-election in a flawed vote last year.

Karzai and a large delegation of Cabinet ministers were to arrive Monday for four days of events meant to show respect for a leader who has felt undermined and sometimes belittled by Washington, even as President Barack Obama greatly expanded a faltering war against insurgents seeking to topple Karzai.

The 8-year-old Afghan war is one main topic. Pentagon officials say they see signs of progress this spring, although by most measures the war remains a stalemate in the key Taliban-allied districts and a U.S.-led military push across southern Afghanistan is off to a slower start than hoped.

The postwar future of Afghanistan is another. Obama intends to begin withdrawing U.S. forces next summer, although few people think the war will be won soon after. No amount of reassurance from Obama is likely to change Karzai's view that the announced date puts a stopwatch on the conflict and gives the insurgents moral ammunition.

All sides will try to say as little as possible about the Obama administration's early ambivalence toward Karzai, which he took as a slight, or Karzai's recent outbursts against what he called foreign interference.

"They wanted a servant government," Karzai complained shortly after Obama made a surprise visit to Kabul in late March. Both leaders said at time that their meeting went well, but Karzai later bristled at remarks about the trip from U.S. officials that he found insulting.

So they will try again.

"The nature of strategic partnerships like the one between the United States and Afghanistan, they feature ups and downs," said Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who directs Afghanistan and Pakistan issues at the National Security Council.

"But the difference between a mere relationship and a partnership like the one we're talking about here is that partnerships endure the ups and downs and continue to press forward towards the common goals on which the partnership is founded."

Apart from personality clashes, the underlying problems in that partnership are unchanged:

— Karzai presides over a weak central government established with heavy U.S. and European guidance and supported with billions in aid. He is a talented politician and a proven survivor, but he has failed to make an effective argument to Afghans in areas with strong Taliban affiliation that they should choose the rule of Kabul instead.

— Karzai's government suffers from endemic corruption that coexists with a larger culture of barter and payoff that the Taliban, warlords and drug rings also exploit. What Washington often sees as shameless nepotism or bribery, some of the powerbrokers Karzai may need the most see as their due.

— The war slogging on in its ninth year remains unpopular in the United States, Europe and in much of Afghanistan itself. Obama accepted the argument for more forces made by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the ascetic disciple of modern counterinsurgency theory he installed to turn the war around last summer. Now U.S. military officials say the window is closing on the time those troops can make a difference. At the top level, military leaders generally give it about another year — if the war remains a grudge match in the key districts then, there is little chance of changing the equation.

— Afghanistan still has an uneasy, unequal relationship with Pakistan, the nuclear-armed next-door neighbor that is, by many assessments, the more important determiner of whether al-Qaida again gains enough footing in the region to launch another catastrophic attack on the United States or its allies.

Karzai's discussions this week are expected to focus on the health of Afghanistan's central government, Karzai's outreach to disaffected tribes or potential insurgents, and the difficult counterinsurgency effort already under way in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province.

He sees Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday, and Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday. There is no formal state dinner at the White House, but the Biden dinner is intended as a fence-mender. Biden was particularly incensed when Karzai remarked last month that if foreign interference in his government continued, the Taliban would become a legitimate resistance — one that he might even join.

Karzai will face close questions about that statement when he sees members of Congress on Wednesday and Thursday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was visiting Afghanistan on Sunday, said Karzai will be received in Washington with "great dignity, great friendship and great candor."

One challenge for the administration this week is to talk tough about Karzai's duty to crack down on corruption without preaching, and without making Karzai look like a U.S. flunky to his countrymen. U.S. officials acknowledge that the sheer size of the foreign military and civilian operation in Afghanistan invites even more corruption, because it spends so much money.

That reflects the Obama administration's recognition it must deal with Karzai in a more straightforward manner — as the elected leader of a country where U.S. forces are fighting and the only partner the United States has as it tries to wind down the war, analysts said.

A year ago, U.S. officials frequently pointed to their efforts to find and develop regional and local political talent outside of Karzai's inner circle. That is still a tenet of McChrystal's revamped U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, but U.S. officials figured out that it did them no good to publicly undermine Karzai, said Gilles Dorronsoro, who studies the Afghan political system at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"What's changed is not the Afghan attitude but the U.S. attitude," Dorronsoro said. "The U.S. administration understands after too long that all the public pressure on Karzai was a mistake. Karzai now is dealing with the Americans probably better, because the Americans are less pushy, less bossy."

AP writer Elizabeth A. Kennedy contributed to this report from Kabul.