U.S. faces domestic fallout from Karzai outburst

WASHINGTON Mon Apr 5, 2010 5:16pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Irritated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's anti-Western outbursts, the Obama administration is expecting some fallout in the U.S. Congress and further erosion of public support for the war.

With congressional elections looming in November, many from President Barack Obama's Democratic Party see a fight at the polls not only on economic issues but also on whether the war in Afghanistan is worth it. Karzai's tone may weigh on that.

Karzai accused embassies of perpetrating election fraud in Afghanistan last year and of seeking to weaken him, claims the White House said were "just not true" and "disturbing."

"These public comments have a certain constituency in Afghanistan but it could have a ripple effect on Capitol Hill," said a senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named.

"We are seeking funds for Afghanistan as it is in our interest but obviously we will need to sustain political support on Capitol Hill and these comments will not be well received."

The Afghan leader also told tribal elders on Sunday that government officials should not let "foreigners" interfere in their work, statements likely to get close scrutiny when U.S. lawmakers return next week after the spring break.

TIMING

What is embarrassing for Washington is the timing of Karzai's comments, less than a week after Obama made his first trip to Afghanistan since he took office in January 2009.

Obama pressed Karzai to follow through on promises after last year's fraud-plagued election to tackle corruption and govern in a way that helped rather than hindered the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy.

David Obey, who chairs the powerful House of Representatives committee that appropriates money for the war, echoed some of the doubts in Congress.

"Mr. Karzai's performance demonstrates why I have raised the question of whether or not, in the government of Afghanistan, we have a tool that is in any way reliable in implementing our policies in that region," Obey said.

Representative Ike Skelton urged Karzai to retract or clarify his statements but suggested Americans should not overreact.

"I do not think that we should allow some intemperate remarks clearly designed for domestic political purposes to undermine what I continue to believe is the best strategy to protect American security," Skelton said.

Senator Russ Feingold, an outspoken proponent of a timetable to bring U.S. troops home, said even before Karzai's recent comments that the Obama administration's strategy depended upon a "less-than-reliable partner."

"Rather than pursuing a large-scale, open-ended military strategy in Afghanistan, we should focus on achievable counterterrorism goals," said Feingold.

PUBLIC FRUSTRATION

The White House, fighting to keep public opinion on its side, has acknowledged frustration with Karzai.

"I think that families all over this country have watched their loved ones go off a long way away to serve bravely in our armed forces and to help a country establish peace and security," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

But experts agree that for the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy to work, Washington needs the support of Karzai and his government and that U.S. criticism can go only so far.

"You can't have a population-centric strategy without the support of an Afghan government and the problem at this point is that both sides are playing hardball and doing it from different perspectives," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Analyst Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress said the Obama team was trying its best to work with Karzai and to play down the latest conflict.

"Karzai will be with us for the next five years and I think it is a more difficult road to embark on if they try to undermine Karzai," said Katulis. "Many see the comments for what they are worth -- trying to shore up his domestic political base."

Afghanistan expert Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation predicted U.S. public opinion would swing more on how military efforts pan out rather than any war of words.

"If we have a really tough summer, that will affect public opinion even more than what Karzai is saying. That is more of a driver," she said of U.S. military action against the Taliban that will focus on Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-biggest city, in the coming months. (Editing by John O'Callaghan)