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White House emphasizes the positive in Afghanistan

As they prepare to roll out a new Afghanistan policy to a skeptical U.S. audience, Obama administration officials are starting to replace their grim public assessments of the battered country with praise for the skills and idealism of its officials and its progress in important areas.

The message is aimed in part, officials say, at trying to build domestic support for a troop increase that President Obama is expected to announce Tuesday. Obama’s decision comes at a time when most Americans have turned against the mission, and some Democratic leaders in Congress have concluded that it is hopeless.

Officials also would like to strengthen support for the mission in Europe, where the administration is lobbying NATO allies for thousands more combat troops -- but faces strong resistance. And experts say the new message also reflects the recognition that, no matter how heavily they have criticized Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the weakness and inefficiency of his government, Western officials need him.

The United States is developing a set of benchmarks to ensure that Karzai fights corruption and inefficiency, instituting a “monitoring and verification” system to determine whether ministries and agencies are worthy of receiving direct U.S. aid.

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But while keeping pressure on Karzai, who won reelection to a second five-year term this year in a tainted vote, officials now are emphasizing Afghanistan’s economic potential, its progress in education and even its anti-corruption efforts.

“The picture in Afghanistan is much more positive than we often give it credit for,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a visit this month to Kabul, the capital.

The rosier assertions carry a political risk. If the public concludes that they are unrealistic, it could cost Obama and his team credibility on Afghanistan. Former President George W. Bush was heavily criticized for his claims of steady progress in Iraq during the most violent days of its insurgency.

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Obama’s administration often blames the Bush White House for starving the Afghanistan mission of resources as it waged a questionable war in Iraq. But once Obama expands the Afghanistan effort, he will assume greater responsibility for the war and will have more reason to defend its results.

Since the start of Obama’s term, U.S. officials have complained about Karzai and his government, hoping to pressure the Afghan leader to move more aggressively against corruption. They wanted him to distance himself from warlords and clamp down on the country’s drug trade.

The American critique was spelled out most sharply in the August report by U.S. and allied military commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal that foreshadowed his request for 40,000 more troops.

“The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials . . . have given Afghans little reason to support their government,” McChrystal wrote.

But now, U.S. officials are focusing on different aspects of the same picture.

James Dobbins, an envoy to Afghanistan under Bush, said Karzai is a “weak but essential” figure for the Americans.

“Some of the criticism was exaggerated, and it may be that they’ll have to overcompensate by exaggerating his virtues,” said Dobbins, now with the Rand Corp.

U.S. allies also have muted their criticism, and Karzai has reciprocated.

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Clinton, during her trip to Kabul, said most of the ministers in Karzai’s government are “very impressive.” She added, “The quality of the people in the government is really quite positive.”

She stressed that U.S. officials will monitor the honesty of Karzai’s government, but she praised the president as a “patriot” who had laid out “visionary” ideas for making the government more honest and effective. In his inauguration address this month, Karzai pledged to fire any official connected to drug trafficking and to “end the culture of impunity and violation of the law.”

Clinton complimented anti-corruption steps, including a new system for issuing automobile licenses that eliminates government middlemen who had been skimming fees.

A more benign image of Karzai has become something of a theme in Western diplomatic circles. The anti-corruption message still figures prominently in public statements and private conversation, but the emerging Western consensus appears to be that heaping scorn on the Afghan leader would backfire.

Karzai has taken a more conciliatory tack, as well. His message last week to mark the start of the year’s most important Muslim holiday was devoid of his harsh recent criticism of foreign military forces for causing civilian casualties, and of unethical behavior in the awarding of lucrative U.S. contracts.

Vocal Western criticism of strongmen in Karzai’s inner circle also has become more muted. Diplomats and U.N. officials made plain their distaste when Karzai selected Mohammed Fahim as one of his two running mates. But Vice President Fahim is expected to be relegated to a largely figurehead role.

Notorious former warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum may not play a formal role in the new Karzai government, but is likely to expect a reward from Karzai for his eleventh-hour campaign help. However, Karzai could probably find ways to reward him that do not involve a highly visible role for him or his close associates.

Without specifying, Clinton indicated that some warlords could be partly forgiven.

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“There are warlords and there are warlords,” she said in an Afghan radio interview. War, she said, results in abuses and mistreatment, “which is always difficult to look back on and figure out how to judge.”

Clinton praised the progress of the country’s agriculture sector, the growth of small business and the treatment of women. “If you are looking at social indicators, well-being of people, opportunities for women, it’s not all a one-sided negative story.”

Richard C. Holbrooke, a Clinton ally who is the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters last week that the country, which has raised its school population from 1 million to 8 million, has made “extraordinary progress” in education.

A U.S. official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said administration officials want Americans to have a basis for supporting the war. “People who are trying to size up our effort need to know that there are positive things going on there,” the official said.

Those arguments may be especially important in Congress, where many lawmakers are coming to the conclusion that Afghanistan is broken.

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who recently visited the country, said: “I don’t see an honest government; I don’t see a civil society or civil works projects; I don’t see help from neighbors in the region. The level of corruption is incredible.”

After Karzai’s inauguration, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) complained on National Public Radio that he “has proven to be an unworthy partner. . . . How can we ask the American people to pay a big price in lives and limbs and also in dollars if we don’t have a connection to a reliable partner?”

She has warned of “serious unrest” in Congress that could threaten the administration’s effort to finance the buildup.

paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Laura King in Kabul contributed to this report.


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