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U.S. seeks to ease strained relations with Afghanistan

The Obama administration realizes it has little choice but to mend differences as there is no obvious leadership alternative aside from Karzai -- and it's a particularly bad time for a diplomatic spat

April 12, 2010|By Laura King

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Senior American officials on Sunday sought to smooth over a sharply quarrelsome interlude in U.S.-Afghan relations, with the special U.S. envoy to the region describing President Hamid Karzai's administration as "a government we can work with."

Speaking to reporters in Kabul, Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, pointed to Karzai's participation in a major planning conference with Afghan, American and coalition officials.

"We have a good relationship with this government," said Holbrooke, who has verbally clashed with Karzai in the past.

Using strikingly consistent language, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates delivered the same message in talk show interviews taped Friday and aired Sunday.

After months of tension, acrimony between Karzai and the Obama administration flared into the open this month. The two sides engaged in a tense weeklong exchange that culminated in a pointed White House hint last week that an invitation to the Afghan leader to visit Washington in May might be withdrawn if his angry outbursts continued.

Karzai had publicly criticized the West for what he characterized as meddling in Afghanistan's internal affairs, and blamed foreigners for massive fraud in last summer's presidential election. If such pressure continued, he said in what some listeners in a closed-door meeting described as a rhetorical flourish, he might just join the Taliban.

The White House called Karzai's comments disturbing, which seemed to further inflame the dispute. In recent days, though, U.S. officials have gone out of their way to alleviate ill feeling, describing Karzai as an important partner.

The effort to turn down the temperature appears to reflect the knowledge that the United States has little choice but to mend its differences with Karzai, in part because there is no obvious leadership alternative, and because this is a particularly bad time for a diplomatic spat.

A major Western military offensive is already in its early stages in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province, and Karzai's cooperation is regarded as key. He has visited Kandahar in the company of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of Western forces in Afghanistan.

In his remarks Sunday, Holbrooke pointed to a series of joint appearances by Karzai and McChrystal.

Gates, on ABC's "This Week," touted Karzai's "very positive relationship" with McChrystal, and noted that the Afghan leader had a "domestic audience" to consider -- suggesting that might account for stridently anti-Western language.

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Clinton said not only the U.S. but Karzai also faced "a very difficult situation" in Afghanistan.

laura.king@latimes.com

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