Afghan President Karzai was to head home Friday, strengthened by a carefully stage-managed visit to Washington intended to highlight his role as a capable military and political commander.
That role will be critical, U.S. officials said, as Karzai immediately plunges into the long and difficult political work of trying to knit together Afghanistan's warring factions and bring years of conflict to a close.
First up: a May 29 political gathering, or jirga, of more than 1,000 Afghan leaders to discuss how, when, and under what conditions to bring Taliban fighters back into Afghan society.
"We had a great visit,'' Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday, "and not just a meeting that produced a lot of good feelings but that produced a lot of work we are going to be doing to follow up.''
Karzai pronounced his visit "meaningful,'' one that has provided him with the stature to go "back home ... to the peace process.''
Officials who helped craft Karzai's visit expressed satisfaction late Thursday that the recently tempestuous relationship between official Washington and Kabul had been pulled well back from the brink of disaster.
Officials said the Karzai visit achieved two critical goals. One is reassuring Washington that the Afghan president is, despite his flaws, a reliable partner to lead a wartime nation and to navigate the tricky business of peace.
Just as important, the visit enables Karzai to return home not as a supplicant to American power, but to convene the May 29 peace jirga as a power in his own right.
That stems from the promise he won this week from President Obama: that the United States will stand by Afghanistan long after the July, 2011 date on which Obama has said he will begin to transition U.S. forces out of the country.
As Karzai described it Thursday, in a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace
, the American commitment will last "... into the future long after we have retired and perhaps into our grandsons and great-granddaughters' generations.
"We know the United States will not abandon the cause,'' he said.
Nowhere was the Afghan leader's powerful new status more evident than in his deferential treatment by the man who may be his closest American confident and adviser, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commands all U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan.
McChrystal, highly sensitive to the nuances of power in Afghanistan, consistently portrayed Karzai -- not himself -- as the guy in charge.
On the eve of the battle for Marja in southern Afghanistan in February, McChrystal said Thursday, he briefed Karzai on the operation and Karzai "gave the final approval'' for it to begin.
"And I think that's the model for the future,'' McChrystal told reporters.
As for future military operations, and specifically the emerging campaign in Kandahar, McChrystal said, Karzai "has given me my guidance.''
All this is a sharp and dramatic change for the Afghan president, who came cut and bruised by sharp criticisms from American officials, including President Obama, who had questioned the Afghan leader's suitability as a "strategic partner.''
U.S.-Afghan relations hit a low late last summer after Karzai assumed a second presidential term in elections that were widely seen as corrupt.
In March, Obama flew to Kabul to dress down the Afghan president for his failure to meet U.S. expectations in reducing official corruption, reforming national and local government, and helping coordinate the multibillion dollar international investment in Afghanistan.
This week, here was Karzai amid glitter and red carpets, squired around town by Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and McChrystal. He was whisked north of the White House to visit Walter Reed Army Medical Center to pay his respects to wounded soldiers, and to Arlington Cemetery to honor the war dead. He spoke movingly of those experiences at a White House press conferenc
And on Friday, Karzai is being escorted by Gates, McChrystal and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to visit with soldiers and families of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky. Units of the division, including its division headquarters and its 1st and 4th brigade combat teams, deploy to Afghanistan later this summer.
The visit is designed to showcase Karzai as a caring and competent commander, and to enable him to express his appreciation for their sacrifices in a direct way.
"He is really good at personal relationships,'' a U.S. officer explained.
Much of this showcasing and diplomacy is aimed at strengthening Karzai's confidence as he moves toward some form of reconciliation with the Taliban.
Obama has insisted that any Taliban fighter wishing to reintegrate with Afghan society must first renounce violence, cut any ties with al-Qaeda and embrace the human rights enshrined in the Afghan constitution, including women's rights that the Taliban have in the past rejected.
U.S. officials said Karzai has initiated a vigorous outreach to Taliban leaders, talking regularly with three to four dozen. No Americans are directly involved in these contacts, although U.S. and Afghan officials regularly consult about whom to approach and how.
Karzai's intention is to find a way to bring back into Afghan society thousands of Afghans who have joined the Taliban out of frustration, but do not "hate America or hate the Afghan government.'' But reconciling with senior Taliban leaders who are ideologically opposed, he said, will be "more difficult.'
When I asked him about this Thursday, McChrystal endorsed the concept of this outreach as a "very, very responsible'' way to proceed. Stressing that it is an Afghan-led effort, McChrystal said that "I think it's an appropriate effort on their part to help figure out the way ahead for the nation
"The way ahead cannot be war,'' McChrystal said. "The way ahead has to be a resolution'' to the conflict.