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For Afghanistan's Karzai, funding tops NATO summit agenda

The Afghan president, who hasn't been shy about criticizing the West, is turning on the charm as the mission winds down and long-term aid is in question.

May 19, 2012|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times
  • Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the chancellery in Berlin this week. At NATO's summit in Chicago this weekend, Karzai will have the chance to play to what was for many years a personal strength: the ability to forge a warm rapport with Western officials.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel… (Guido Bergmann, Associated…)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai, perhaps best known in the West for periodic well-aimed jabs at his NATO allies, is embarking on a determined charm offensive as he faces the prospect of seeing troops and, perhaps even more crucially, dollars slip away from his country.

The Afghan government has long regarded the NATO alliance and its partners as a seemingly bottomless source of funding. But aides to Karzai say the president is heading to a landmark NATO summit in Chicago this weekend with a keen awareness of the financial pinch being felt from London to Tokyo.

As he prepared to leave for the United States, via Germany, this week, Karzai made a point of thanking countries that have pledged specific amounts toward the estimated $4.1-billion annual cost of funding the Afghan police and army after NATO troops leave, a central summit aim.

U.S. officials have indicated they expect to meet their target, but it has been an exercise in arm-twisting. So far, the only major allies to make public pledges have been Britain, which is promising to provide $110 million a year; Germany, which has offered more than $200 million; and Australia, $100 million.

Chicago represents a balancing act for Karzai. Even as he appeals to a war-weary West to make long-term commitments to aiding Afghanistan, he is mindful of intense national pride among his audience at home. The end of the NATO combat role at the end of 2014, he has been telling compatriots, will mark a crucial boost toAfghanistan'ssovereignty, without imperiling its people.

"The withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan will not have an impact on the overall security of Afghanistan, provided that the assistance — financial — to the Afghan economy and the training and equipping of Afghan security forces continues, and the engagement of the international community in Afghanistan continues," Karzai said in an interview this month with Russian news outlets.

The Afghan leader andAfghanistan'sdefense establishment have had few reservations about complaining loudly that the West is shortchanging the Afghan military when it comes to manpower and sophisticated weaponry.

But Karzai is expected to keep in check any strident criticism of a NATO plan to scale back the Afghan police and army to a long-term total of about 230,000, a substantial decrease from the 350,000 it will number at its peak.

The months leading up to the summit have been punctuated by a series of highly fraught incidents involving American troops: the emergence, in January, of video showing U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters; the accidental burning of Korans at a U.S. base in February, which touched off a week of deadly riots; and a March shooting rampage in Kandahar province, allegedly by aU.S. Army sergeant, that left 17 people dead, more than half of them children.

Relations might have hit a nadir when Karzai, after the Kandahar massacre, railed against the "twin demons" plaguing the country: the Taliban and foreign forces.

In Chicago, by contrast, Karzai and the Obama administration are likely to be reading from the same script Sunday and Monday, asserting thatAfghanistan'spolice and army can succeed.

Both Karzai and U.S. officials may point to Afghan forces' lead role in combating a tightly coordinated insurgent attack on targets that included Western embassies in the Afghan capital last month.

Discomfiting trends involving the Afghan security forces are likely to be played down, including the notorious trend of "insider" shootings of Western trainers by Afghan police and soldiers. Such attacks have killed at least 23 NATO troops this year, and have touched virtually every major Western army in recent months: the Americans, the British, the French, the Germans, the Australians.

Both Karzai and Western backers are putting a high gloss as well on the transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forces. Karzai's office this week announced a third batch of areas across Afghanistan to be safeguarded by Afghans, with the latest additions putting about three-quarters of the population under Afghan protection.

But even if members of the Karzai government repeat the NATO mantra that the Afghan forces are nearly ready to step into the lead role, local officials in volatile areas have been far more vocal in their misgivings.

Kapisa province, the French area of operations, was on the latest list of security transfers, but officials there say the insurgents hold sway in at least two districts. After an insider attack that killed four French troops this year, the French have largely stopped conducting offensive operations, or even interacting with Afghan troops, locals say.

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