Reading the tea leaves concerning Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington, a comment today by Hillary Clinton stands out:
 
“Let me be clear. As we look toward a responsible, orderly transition in the international combat mission in Afghanistan, we will not abandon the Afghan people. Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future.”
 
Does that comment signal that the Obama administration is thinking long and hard about the July, 2011, military drawdown of U.S. forces?
 
Most of the focus in connection with Karzai’s visit is on the supposed decision by the United States to play nice with Karzai, to abandon the confrontational stance that has marked the American attitude toward Karzai since taking office in 2009. And it’s true: on the surface, at least, the Obama administration has stopped treating Karzai like he’s some wayward, recalcitrant puppet. (It isn’t clear, yet, if anything’s changed behind the scenes, and whether Washington is less obsessed with Karzai’s alleged tolerance for corruption, his deals with various warlords, the drug trade, and other issues that are peripheral to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Whatever that is.)
 
The real issues regarding Karzai’s visit are – or should be – two. First, will the United States finally, once and for all, support Karzai’s effort to strike a political deal with the Taliban and its allies, including the Hekmatyar and Haqqani factions? And second, will the United States finally, once and for all, devise a strategy to make Obama’s promised 2011 drawdown go smoothly?
 
To do the first, the United States has to develop a strategy of its own, complementary to Karzai’s, for talking with Taliban. The New York Times, in its preview of the Karzai visit today, suggests, without supporting evidence, that the United States will provide general support to Karzai on his chief diplomatic priority, namely, reconciliation with the Taliban. But the paper adds, circumspectly: “The administration had not yet formulated a detailed plan on so-called reconciliation.” Detailed plan? The United States has no plan whatsoever.
 
But the Times does say that the Obama administration is engaged in a “new charm offensive” with the visiting Karzai delegation, bringing out the “good china, and adding: “The new warmth is oozing all the way to the Oval Office.” Maybe so. But so far it isn’t obvious at all that the president is willing to change course in Afghanistan. Only recently, Obama met Karzai in Kabul and delivered a finger-wagging, imperialist rebuke to the Afghan president, face to face. Karzai responded, with great statesmanship, in the next few days, by saying that he refuses to be a puppet, refuses to head a “servant government,” and that he will not back off from trying to strike a deal with the Taliban. That, despite the fact that a boorish U.S. military officer met with his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and threatened to kill him – yes, kill him! – if Ahmed Wali was caught talking with insurgents!
 
When he returns to Afghanistan, Karzai has scheduled a peace jirga, or council, to bring together all aspects of Afghan society – tribal leaders, warlords, clerics, and so on – to try to win their support for his plan to talk to the Taliban. It isn’t an easy task. Members of the old Northern Alliance, the India-backed rebel group that opposed the Taliban until its fall in 2001, don’t like Karzai’s idea of giving the Taliban a share of power. (And India, which is open to the idea of talking to the Taliban, is worried that Pakistan will control the negotiations through its overpowering influence over the Taliban leadership.) Other Afghan warlords don’t want to lose power to Taliban-linked chieftains in the south and east. And Karzai himself is not exactly beloved by the Taliban, though key elements of the insurgency seem more than ready to smoke the peace pipe with him – including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party and at least some important factions of the fragmented Taliban leadership itself.
 
Karzai’s here with nearly his entire government, bringing twenty officials and Cabinet ministers, arriving on a U.S. Air Force jet. He’ll be wined and dined by nearly every top U.S. official, from Obama and Vice President Biden, to Clinton, to Defense Secretary Gates and National Security Adviser Jones, to members of Congress.
 
There are plenty of skeptics in Washington about Karzai and his plans, from Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador who was the No. 2 man in the UN mission in Afghanistan last year, who’s suggested that Karzai is psychotic and on drugs. And Marvin Weinbaum, far more level-headed than Galbraith, ridicules the idea of talking to the Taliban: “Simply put, the necessary conditions for serious negotiations do not exist.”
 
The U.S. view is” Shoot first, ask questions later.” Meaning, first we kill all the Taliban we can, try to push them out of Kandahar, and then maybe the Taliban will be willing to lay down its arms. Not only is that a fantasy – the coming offensive into Kandahar, a city of 500,000 in a province of two million people, is likely to fail miserably, just as the February assault on Marja, a tiny, agricultural village of 60,000 failed – but in addition, there’s no reason to expect that the Taliban will be any more willing to sit and talk after they’ve been bloodied.