Hamid Karzai's visit to the US lays bare the Afghan president's strengths and weaknesses. He still enjoys US backing, but he is worried about troop withdrawals, elections, Pakistan and the Taliban.
On his three-day offical visit to the US starting on Monday (07.01.2012), Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be speaking at length with President Barack Obama about the troop strength of American soldiers post-2014 and about coming presidential elections in Afghanistan. Both topics will be of decisive importance for Afghanistan's future: troop strength is central to the country's security, while elections will show which path the embattled country will now take.
Other topics of interest include the economy, the relationship between Afghanistan and neighboring countries - above all, Pakistan - and talks about a potential bilateral security agreement.
After the 2014 troop withdrawal
After the next round of US troop withdrawals in 2014, experts presume that at least 30,000 US and NATO troops will remain stationed in Afghanistan. Still, many Afghans worry that the southern and eastern parts of country, which share a border with Pakistan, will once again fall into the hands of insurgents when foreign security forces are withdrawn.
That is why the Afghan government is demanding a comprehensive upgrade of its army and police forces. Aimal Faizi, spokesman to the Afghan president, said, "One of the most important points in talks between President Karzai and President Obama will be the upgrade of Afghan security forces. We have already made it clear that, with regard to our shared interests and needs, the US should train our military."
An air force for Afghanistan
One of President Karzai's particular concerns, Faizi said, is related to new equipment for an Afghan air force which, up until now, has remained poorly equipped.
Over the last 18 years, the US has been delivering fighter planes not to Afghanistan but to neighboring Pakistan. Afghanistan would like to close that gap, says the South Asia expert Conrad Schetter. He does not believe, however, that it will happen. "Due to the competitive relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a delivery to the Afghan air force would cause an escalation between the two countries and would assuredly result in a deterioration of the relationship between the US and Pakistan. No one in Washington can advocate that."
Where the US has invested in Afghan security forces, it has done so primarily in light armaments for the infantry.
Signals to Pakistan and the Taliban
The trip is also intended to send a signal directed at both Pakistan and the insurgent Taliban. The latest declaration of proximity between the US and Afghanistan will put Pakistan under pressure. "For Pakistan that means it has to try to enter into an alliance in order to avoid being isolated," Schetter says.
Karzai's signal to the Taliban is different: Peace negotiations, when they come, should only be undertaken with the inclusion of Afghanistan - and not with the US alone - since Karzai now has the backing of the US: something this trip will show.
These Taliban fighters were arrested by Afghan joint forces during an operation in Jalalabad in December 2012
No peace without the Taliban
According to the Afghan government, the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan agree that the conflict in Afghanistan cannot be settled by war. Beyond that, many Afghan experts agree that peace without Taliban engagement isn't possible.
Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul recently reassured the Taliban (02.01.2013) at a press conference. "Should the Taliban take part in a peace process, and progress is achieved, then they can take part in the coming elections as a political party," he said.
Even Abdul Hamid Azer, a community leader of a municipality in the province of Kabul, supports this approach. "It's good news that the Taliban has active contact with the world at a diplomatic level. They are also Afghans, and one can't say that they're not also suffering under the conditions of war." Whether the strategy of negotiating with the Taliban works will presumably be seen after the 2014 presidential election.
The US supports peace talks with the Taliban in order to bring an end to the conflict and, with it, an end to the military deployment in Afghanistan. America is set to withdraw its troop force of 65,000 in 2014.
In spite of all the progress made with the Taliban thus far, Karzai's trip shows that the Afghan government still relies heavily on the US as its protector.