WASHINGTON, June 18 (UPI) -- Standing beside President George W. Bush in the White House Rose Garden Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's head of state, observed jokingly that perhaps he would remain in the United States instead of returning to Kabul. "One likes to stay here and not go, it's such a good country," he said.
If he expected Bush to reply that he would be welcome, he was disappointed. "Get home and get to work, will you?" the president said, only half joking. Karzai replied: "Thank you, yes."
Visiting Washington this week Karzai got the red carpet treatment. He had a private lunch at the White House with President Bush and his wife. He addressed a joint session of congress, a signal honor reserved for prominent visitors, and he had talks with top Bush advisers.
Though nobody said so, the speech to congress was to compensate for an embarrassing blunder two years ago when the Bush administration arranged for President Karzai to appear before the Senate Committee on foreign Relations as if he were testifying.
But some observers felt the extra frills were intended as a substitute for substance. From the Bush administration's standpoint having Karzai in Washington was 1) a chance for Bush to trumpet Afghanistan as a U.S. success. He called it "the first victory in the war on terrorism," 2) a way to ensure that Karzai didn't feel deserted by Washington after the new president of Iraq, Ghazi al-Yawar, had the previous week attended the summit of the industrialized nations -- the G8 -- in Georgia, 3) an opportunity to impress on Karzai the importance of holding presidential and parliamentary elections in Afghanistan on schedule in September.
For Karzai the visit was an opportunity to make sure that his country would not be forgotten amid the clamor surrounding the U.S. return of sovereignty to Iraq on June 30. It was also a welcome break from the upheavals and the constant threat of assassination in his own country. The fleeting desire he expressed to stay where he was safe was very human.
Inevitably, Bush and Karzai both emphasized the progress made in Afghanistan since the defeat of the Taliban Islamic fundamentalist regime in 2001 as a result of the U.S.-led military offensive. A new constitution was introduced in January of this year, reconstruction has begun, more children are in school, and women have returned to public life.
Speaking at a Washington think tank Karzai also singled out press freedom and the proliferation of political parties for special mention. "The New York Times and the Washington Post look like government-controlled papers compared to the Afghan newspapers," he said. "That's how free the press is." As for political parties, they are "mushrooming," he said. "I don't know how many political parties we have today."
The following day he told congress: "You came to Afghanistan to defeat terrorism, and we Afghans welcomed and embraced you for the liberation of our country. Together we ended the rule of terrorism." In line with current Bush administration language he did not mention the Taliban, or the al-Qaida terrorist organization and its leader Osama bin Laden. Yet about 20,000 U.S.-led troops face frequent attacks from a guerrilla insurgency spearheaded by remnants of the Taliban organization and al-Qaida fighters.
Residual Taliban/al-Qaida resistance is part of a larger security problem that besets the Karzai government, which more than a year after taking office still has limited control outside Kabul, the capital.
Warlords and tribal chiefs run the impoverished provinces -- with the help of some 50,000 militiamen. Karzai was seeking a larger NATO force to buttress the government's authority at least in the main towns. But with Bush pressing the Atlantic Alliance to take on a larger role in Iraq, observers say, the size of NATO's presence in Afghanistan is unlikely to be stepped up in the short term.
Related to the security problem is the re-emergence of Afghanistan's drug trade, especially opium. This year's opium harvest is expected to be the country's largest. "We began to destroy poppies (the opium producing flower) and to address the difficulty once the interim government came into office," Karzai said at the think tank.
"For Afghanistan's sake, for us as a nation, poppies are a menace," he went on. "They criminalize the economy...they pay for terrorism, they go hand in hand with crime and warlordism and terrorism so Afghanistan has to definitely address it, and I hope there will be enough sustained international assistance."
Though Karzai seems confident that Afghanistan can hold fair and free elections in September others see that prospect receding because of the security situation and slow voter registration. They believe that at worst, the elections will be postponed for the second time. At best, they would be "symbolic" rather than truly democratic, Nasrullah Staniczai of Kabul University was quoted as saying this week.
"There is a possibility of holding elections in September but they would be sort of symbolic elections because they will not be able to cover the whole country," says Staniczai, who teaches political science.
This is not good news for the White House, which would like to score a significant political success in Afghanistan two months before Bush faces his own presidential polls. Particularly, say observers, since there will by then be little good news coming out of Iraq.