U.S. and Afghan Presidents Reaffirm Partnership at Chicago Summit

U.S. and Afghan Presidents Reaffirm Partnership at Chicago Summit

Institute for the Study of War

U.S. President Barack Obama met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday to discuss the role of international forces in Afghanistan over the next two years. The discussion was held just prior to the opening of the NATO Summit in Chicago, where the agenda for alliance partners included discussions about transitioning lead responsibility of Afghanistan to the Kabul-based government.

Karzai publicly expressed his gratitude for continued U.S. financial assistance and reaffirmed the current campaign timeline, after which he said Afghanistan would no longer be a “burden” on the international community.  At the same time, he expressed gratitude for the sacrifices made by US soldiers in Afghanistan. Obama said that although NATO will withdraw the majority of combat forces by 2014, the coalition’s “commitment to friendship and partnership to Afghanistan [will] continue.”

President Karzai’s remarks represent a shift from critical statements made earlier this year. Karzai continually balances the need for continued international assistance and domestic pressure to reduce its dependence on international partners. Earlier this year, after a series of incidents including the burnings of Korans at Bagram and the deaths of 17 civilians in Kandahar province, Karzai bowed to domestic pressure and complained about the “twin demons” plaguing his country—the Taliban and foreign forces. Since then, however, US and Afghan relations have noticeably improved with the signing of three key agreements which both reaffirm Afghan sovereignty and renewed international commitment to Afghanistan, including the Strategic Partnership Agreement, the transfer of detention facilities to Afghan control, and placing contentious Special Operations “night raids” under Afghan authority. Karzai’s shift likely also reflects heightened tensions with neighboring Iran and Pakistan and what senior Afghan politicians increasingly see as regional interference and challenges to Afghan sovereignty.

President Karzai is currently in his second term, after which he is required by the Afghan Constitution to step down in 2014. During their meeting, President Obama stressed to Karzai the critical need for Afghanistan to reform the electoral process before the country’s next presidential election. The 2009 presidential election (in which Karzai was reelected) and 2010 parliamentary election were plagued by pervasive fraud. The aftermath of the elections strained the relationship between the two leaders and severely damaged the credibility of Afghan electoral organizations and eroded much public support for the government.

Also discussed was the importance of continuing reconciliation talks with the Taliban. The process was stymied in March when the Taliban pulled out of talks, but Obama reportedly emphasized that political reconciliation was a critical element to stabilizing Afghanistan after the international withdrawal. Despite the President’s pledge, the Taliban released a statement to coincide with the NATO summit, stating that “the Mujahideen of Islamic Emirate will keep proceeding with their on-going Jihad until it attains its goal.”

Although Afghan forces rare expected to assume lead security responsibility by mid-2013, international mentors and advisors will remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014 to continue providing guidance and assistance support for logistics, airlift, intelligence, and planning. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated in his opening remarks that there would be "no rush for the exits."

International donors are expected to meet in Tokyo in July to discuss development efforts in Afghanistan, but the U.S. and NATO have an opportunity at Chicago to continue pressing the Afghan government for positive reform and an iron-clad commitment that the country will hold a Presidential election in 2014. Pushing for such improvements would strengthen the legitimacy of the Afghan government and help convince the Afghan population that they have a role in the future of their country.