- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2009

For members of President Obama’s own party, the need to rely on the beleaguered government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has emerged as a major question on Capitol Hill in the days since Mr. Obama announced a 30,000-troop military surge.

Skeptical congressional Democrats stepped up their attacks last week on Mr. Karzai — a pivotal ally on whom the administration is banking to reform and reorganize his country’s security forces by the time U.S. forces begin to withdraw in mid-2011.

In the days since Mr. Obama announced a temporary surge in Afghanistan, antiwar Democrats have warned that the weak and corruption-ridden government in Kabul will not be up to the task of taking over the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

“President Karzai is corrupt and incompetent. He cheated in the most recent election, and I don’t want any more American servicemen or women to risk their lives for his corrupt government,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat and a vocal opponent of the surge in Afghanistan.

“And I’m a little bit stunned by the quick and inexplicable pivot by some in the administration from rightly denouncing Karzai’s behavior to now embracing him as our dear friend,” he added.

Mr. Karzai’s reliability is likely to get fresh scrutiny as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in the war, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry begin two days of congressional testimony Tuesday to explain and defend Mr. Obama’s new plan.

The assault has already put the White House in the tough position of having to defend Mr. Karzai and his team while continuing to pressure them to institute reforms and re-establish popular legitimacy after the widely criticized presidential election in August.

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said the marred election compounded Mr. Karzai’s woes and Mr. Obama’s strategic problem.

Mr. Karzai “has presided over massive corruption, where, you know, anywhere between 20 percent to 40 percent seems to be the going rate of skimming off of the taxpayers’ money,” Mr. Menendez said last week.

While top Republicans question Mr. Obama’s decision to set a date for withdrawal, skeptical Democrats are more concerned about whether Kabul will prove a reliable partner.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, as the administration’s lead diplomat, found herself in the position of defending Mr. Karzai in two days of congressional testimony.

“I think it is unfair to paint with such a broad brush the president and government of Afghanistan,” she told a House hearing last week. “And to basically declare that they are incapable and unwilling to defend and protect their own country and that they are fatally flawed. I do not believe that.”

Despite the criticism, Mr. Obama is not likely to face a full-scale revolt in Congress against his strategy in Afghanistan. Many leading Republicans have backed the decision to send more troops, and some leading anti-war Democrats have signaled that they will give Mr. Obama the benefit of the doubt — for now.

Mr. Obama “has made his decision,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday. The California Democrat said earlier this fall that the House Democratic caucus did not have majority support for the escalation.

“We have to handle it with care, listen to what [administration officials] present, and then members will make their decision,” Mrs. Pelosi said.

Mr. Karzai has tried to calm U.S. doubts while dealing with domestic uncertainty caused by Mr. Obama’s July 2011 withdrawal date. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that the withdrawal would begin, whatever the conditions on the ground, although the pace could be adjusted.

Mr. Karzai, in an interview with the Associated Press in Kabul, said Mr. Obama’s timeline is “not a concern” but an “impetus for this government to show its effectiveness.”

“If we, the Afghan people, cannot defend our country ourselves against an aggressor from within or without, then no matter what the rest of the world does with us, it will not produce the desired results,” he said.

Lawmakers from both parties have expressed uncertainty about Mr. Obama’s overall strategy, the mission of the extra U.S. troops, the conditions that will allow them to come home and the president’s definition of victory.

“I would say I have pretty average intelligence, and it’s still pretty unclear to me what we’re doing,” said Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican.

Mrs. Clinton placed much of the blame for the confusion on the George W. Bush administration, as the Islamist Taliban movement has staged a resurgence in recent years.

“I don’t blame you or anybody else for wondering where we are because of the history we inherited and our effort to make sense and rationalize what is happening,” Mrs. Clinton said Thursday.

Supporters and skeptics questioned Mr. Obama’s simultaneous announcements of sending additional troops and setting a date to begin withdrawal.

“Can you tell the committee that in fact after July of 2011, we won’t have tens of thousands of troops for years after that?” Mr. Menendez asked Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“When I hear these dates, I think they are as solid as quicksand, and at best aspirational.”

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Gates would not say how long significant numbers of troops would stay in Afghanistan.

“This is what I would describe as a Rubik’s Cube on steroids,” said Sen. Jim Risch, Idaho Republican.

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