Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration have had a tense relationship from the start. But it seems to be worsening, as Karzai lashes out against U.S. pressure on him, and the U.S. urges Karzai to watch his words if he still wants to come to Washington to meet with President Obama in May.
Just back from a trip to Afghanistan, Democratic Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware says he found Karzai to be under a lot of stress. The Afghan leader has to balance all kinds of domestic pressures, in addition to the pressure the Obama administration has been putting on him to crack down on corruption.
"He can be very charming and go for periods of time and be fine," Kaufman says of Karzai. "But it's hard to maintain control or the illusion of control when there are so many things going on around Afghanistan, a country that has never really had a strong central government."
"Some of the things are really going to be bad for him," Kaufman predicts, pointing to a planned military operation in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, where Karzai has some friends with "a checkered past."
America's strategy in Afghanistan depends on having an effective government in place, according to Kaufman.
"What we have to do is demonstrate to the people of Afghanistan [that] it's not a choice between us and the Taliban. It's a choice between the Taliban and the government in Kabul," he says.
Karzai has been blaming the West for many of his troubles, and his comments have drawn sharp rebukes from the Obama administration and from other countries involved in the war.
Canada's ambassador to the United States, Gary Doer, says Karzai should be held to account for his rhetoric.
"It's obviously extremely inflammatory when you consider the loss of life in Afghanistan and the investments we are making, not only in the military side, but the investments we are making on the civil society side," Doer says.
Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress points to a copy of a leaked memo that the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, wrote last year, soon after Karzai was re-elected. According to Katulis, Eikenberry clearly stated that Karzai was not an adequate strategic partner.
"So we can't say we weren't warned," Katulis said, adding that recent events are a public airing of what has been a longstanding tug of war.
"We are trying to manage a relationship with a partner whose government structure is inherently unstable itself. So, whether [Karzai is] stable or not is only the tip of the iceberg," Katulis said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tried to cool tempers this week. He said the U.S. is concerned about some of the things Karzai has been saying, but the Obama administration also realizes there is much at stake.
"He's the president of Afghanistan. And he is a figure that we respect," said Crowley, who added that the U.S. wants to see the emergence of an effective government at the national level, as well as at the provincial and local levels.
Karzai feels that the U.S. is trying to work around him, according to Kaufman, the Delaware senator. Kaufman doesn't agree: "I think we are just working with the provincial governors and with the district councils and the district governors, and we are just working with everybody over there."
A senior European diplomat says the West has to continue to pressure Karzai to keep his promises for better governance. But the international community also accepted the results of last year's election after Karzai campaigned on a nationalist platform. So despite all the concerns about him, diplomats says it's time to cool things down.