Obama makes an overture to Karzai

In an attempt to smooth over a stretch of rough relations, President Obama has sent a letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week expressing support for their partnership and confirming plans to meet with him in Washington in May, a senior administration official said Friday.

The overture represented a sharp departure from the administration’s recent treatment of Karzai. The White House within the last week called complaints by Karzai about the United States “troubling” and said his planned trip in May could be canceled.

“We ought to calm the rhetoric and engage as strategic partners intent on bringing about peace and security, not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but in the region as well,” White House national security advisor James L. Jones told reporters traveling back with the president on Air Force One on Thursday from Prague, Czech Republic.

White House officials did not explain the reasons for the change in tone. But Defense officials had expressed alarm that Washington risked undermining the Afghan government’s support for crucial U.S. initiatives, such as an upcoming offensive in Kandahar.

One military official said Karzai had lashed out at the United States because American officials had embarrassed him in front of his people.

Such public criticisms of Karzai weaken him politically and make him a less-effective leader, the military official said. Although questions remain about the country’s 2009 presidential election, which was marred by voter fraud, U.S. interests are best served by helping establish Karzai as a viable leader, the official said.

The note, hand-delivered by the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, thanked Karzai for his hospitality on Obama’s recent visit to Afghanistan and recommitted the U.S. “to the success of our operation” in Afghanistan, Jones said.

Tensions flared after Obama’s surprise trip to Kabul last month.

He urged Karzai to act more decisively to root out corruption in his government. Karzai soon responded with sharp public remarks about too much Western involvement in Afghan affairs and suggested that his government could legitimize the Taliban.

Jones said Friday that he did not believe Karzai intended to “create any damage to the relationship.”