Afghan president visits US after threatening to join Taliban

Hamid Karzai has arrived in the US at a time when tensions between the Washington and Kabul are high. What was behind Karzai’s threats to join the Taliban? And why are officials saying cooperation has never been better?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai touched down in Washington at a time when relations between the two governments are believed to be touchy. Nevertheless, US officials are putting a positive spin on the visit.

“The US and Afghan government’s have never been more closely aligned,” US ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry told the media.

“We a period of close strategic cooperation with the government,” said Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But we don’t have to look any further back than last month to add a big question mark to the end of that statement.

That’s when, according to press reports, Karzai made some rather inflammatory comments.

Karzai angered Washington, accusing the West of orchestrating fraud in Afghan elections, and it didn’t end there. Some outlets reported that he even threatened to join the Taliban.

Those reports came out shortly after US President Barack Obama dropped into Afghanistan unannounced in late-March.

“It turns out American people let me use this plane, Air Force One, so I thought I’d come over and say hello,” Obama joked to an audience of troops at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.

During the visit, he urged President Karzai to keep up the fight against corruption in his ranks. Now, Washington officials say these tensions are water under the bridge.

“I will say categorically, that period ended,” said Ambassador Holbrooke.

But it appears problems with the Karzai government have not, not according to a recent Pentagon report.

“In the critical areas of Afghanistan where the insurgency is taking place, the Karzai government only has a quarter support among the people,” said Matthew Hoh, a former US State Department official. “Only a quarter of the district’s surveyed are supportive of the government.”

And in reality, it’s probably not Karzai Washington needs to worry about joining the Taliban. Not with the killing of innocent civilians at the hands of coalition forces.

“For Afghans, when family members die, when you kill innocent civilians, Afghans will switch sides and join the Taliban,” said Jake Diliberto of Rethink Afghanistan.

Whether any of those touchy topics will make into conversation between the two presidents remains to be seen, but officials seem to be playing to the positive PR so far.

“We’re making progress right now in an array of areas that are critical to our combined success with Afghanistan,” said Eikenberry.

And as the US and Afghanistan use this visit to look forward to the US troop withdrawal scheduled to begin in July 2011, it may be important to look back.

“I’ve got a news article I keep from January 2007, and it’s from the commanding general who was a British general at the time of NATO forces in Afghanistan, where he is saying all we need is more troops, and one more year to beat the Taliban,” said Hoh. “And every year we hear this.”