KABUL, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama's tone in Kabul was all business as he hammered home his theme that the Afghans need to do more to fight corruption and reform government to defeat the Taliban.
The arm's-length approach was the administration's latest attempt to strike the right balance in dealing with President Hamid Karzai. Although the United States believes Karzai is a flawed leader, it cannot afford to alienate him because he is key to a successful American exit from the war.
Former President George W. Bush established a more personal relationship with Karzai. In contrast, Obama was critical of Karzai from the start, stating in December when he announced his troop surge that "the days of providing a blank check are over."
Neither strategy worked well. Bush's approach failed to push Karzai toward more effective governance. Obama's criticism angered Karzai, feeding fears that the Americans were trying to undermine him. The Afghan president's visits in recent weeks to China and Iran show he has options for support from other countries.
Criticism from the United States now appears more measured.
A day after the visit, Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, described the two leaders' private meeting as cordial and dismissed reports that Obama flew to Kabul on Sunday to order a recalcitrant Karzai to get his government in line.
"Our relationship with the United States has gone through ups and downs," Omar said Monday. "At this point in time, there are more ups than downs. We have certain views about certain issues and they have certain views about certain issues. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we don't."
The new tone is only part of the administration's evolving approach toward Kabul. The United States is now seeking to deal with the broader Afghan leadership — not just Karzai.
Western diplomats briefed on the meetings said Obama worked to convince the Afghan officials that Afghanistan can count on a long-term commitment from the United States despite the president's desire to start withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011. They said Obama also stressed that while there's been some progress, more work is needed to set up better local, provincial and central governments run by people picked for competence, not cronyism.
Karzai, who is expected to see Obama next on May 12 in Washington, has taken steps since his fraud-stained re-election last year to combat corruption. But international observers and human rights activists have said such measures do not go far enough.
The White House considers the fight against corruption key to the war. Success will come only if the Afghan people increasingly decide to back their own government rather than the Taliban.