Was it a salve, or was it a slap?
President Obama’s lightning visit to the Afghan capital, his first trip here since taking office 14 months ago, came after months of tension between his administration and that of President Hamid Karzai.
In Kabul, opinion was divided as to whether Obama’s six-hour nighttime fly-in late Sunday and early Monday marked a possible turnaround in relations or the continuation of a stubborn impasse in a crucial alliance.
Some here were miffed that Obama had not visited sooner. Others, though, said he had been right to stay away -- his absence a clear message to Karzai that a business-as-usual attitude toward corruption and graft was not acceptable.
After arriving aboard Air Force One at a U.S. base north of Kabul, Obama flew by helicopter to the heavily fortified presidential palace for meetings with Karzai and senior aides.
Karzai can be effusive and charming when he wants to be, and some observers were struck by the stiffness of his public manner toward Obama as the two greeted each other. Correct, yes; warm, no.
Other participants, though, described the mood as cordial, particularly at a traditional sit-down Afghan dinner of heaping mounds of rice, steaming kebabs, fresh fruit juices and sweets all around.
“There was laughing, there was joking,” said Omar Zakhilwal, the minister of finance, who said he had a lengthy discussion with Obama about the need to build the capacity of Afghan institutions.
“He asked very, very informed questions,” Zakhilwal said approvingly.
The presence of reform-minded ministers such as Zakhilwal at the talks was at the explicit request of the American side. That was read in some quarters as an implicit rebuke to Karzai, who has had little tangible progress to point to on the anti-corruption front despite near-constant U.S. prodding.
“From Day 1, when he surrendered himself to the warlords, the drug smugglers and the war criminals, he has been the same,” said former minister Wadir Safi, now an analyst at Kabul University. “He’s not improving himself, and he’s not improving society.”
Even before last summer’s fraud-tainted presidential election, relations between Obama and Karzai were cool.
The chill deepened dramatically after the Obama administration essentially strong-armed Karzai into accepting an election panel’s findings that he had not won the first round of voting outright, as he insisted he had. In the end, the runoff vote was scrapped when Karzai’s main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out.
Obama did not attend Karzai’s swearing-in for a second term, in November. Instead, he sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who used the occasion to deliver a stern message to the Afghan leader about cleaning up his government.
Karzai and Obama spoke by videoconference this month, palace officials said. But the days of friendly once-a-week video chats, as occurred between Karzai and Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, are clearly a thing of the past.
A few in the Karzai camp took umbrage at the White House’s suggestion that Obama had wanted to come to Kabul sooner but was prevented by logistical issues, including weather.
“A year of bad weather? I don’t think so,” said one Karzai confidant.
Obama invited Karzai to visit Washington this spring, and the White House said a date of May 12 had been set. The presidential palace here reported the invitation but didn’t say it had been accepted.
The Taliban, meanwhile, quickly moved to mock Obama for visiting at night. The timing -- arrival after dusk, departure before dawn -- was for security reasons, together with the strict secrecy surrounding the trip.
“It is proof of his cowardice,” said Zabiullah Mujabid, a Taliban spokesman contacted by telephone. “He came stealthily in the dark and left in the dark.”
The hours after the U.S. president’s departure brought new reminders of the cost of the massive troop buildup in Afghanistan he has ordered.
Western military officials on Monday reported the latest fatality, a service member killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan’s south. A day without such a death is rare. Since the war began in late 2001, 1,030 U.S. troops have died, according to icasualties.org.
Battlefield injuries, too, are rising sharply; despite the late hour, Obama looked in on the wounded at Bagram air base, where he also rallied the troops with a speech given to about 2,500 service members.
On the streets of Kabul, though, the visit went almost unnoticed.
Television stations excitedly reported Obama’s arrival Sunday evening, but coverage had dwindled to almost nothing by midday Monday.
“The foreigners only have their own interests at heart,” said Amirgul Etina, a Kabul teacher. “His coming here doesn’t benefit this country.”
But Mohammad Nabi, a 30-year-old construction company owner, said the U.S. president should continue to take a hard line with Karzai.
“We need to get rid of corruption. It makes life here unbearable,” he said. “If Obama can help with that, we’ll be happy.”