Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defence, paid his farewell call Saturday on Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul before he demits office next month. Amongst the entire AfPak team in Washington, Gates acquitted himself the best. He was conscious of Afghan traditions and sensitivities and never talked down like a viceroy, and he kept out of controversies and ego clashes with the Afghan eladership. He tried to look at problems from the Afghan viewpoint as well.
Gates' visit took place against a dramatic backdrop - killing of Osama bin Laden and Ilyas Kashmiri, Taliban-US direct contacts, Pak-Afghan bonhomie, and US drawdown in July. The press conference with Hamid Karzai threw up a few salients. One, neither Gates nor Karzai would be drawn into any criticism of Pakistan. Obviously, US is in 'damage control' mode and Karzai is preparing for his next visit to Islamabad. Pakistan is manifestly courting Karzai.
Two, Gates took a 'wait-and-see approach' when asked about the impact of the killing of bin Laden on Taliban. He spoke about a 'personal relationship' between bin Laden and Omar rather than an al-Qaeda-Taliban nexus. Karzai, on the contrary, was hopeful that Taliban would be more open to reconciliation.
Three, Gates repeatedly claimed that US operations have reversed Taliban momentum, but Karzai remained silent. On the other hand, Karzai forcefully complained about excesses of NATO operations. Karzai insisted that the transition should be through mutual consultations and it is not only a matter of transfer of security responsibility, but also an obligation to dismantle the parallel power structures the western powers created in the provinces bypassing Kabul's authority. A sharp observation, indeed.
Finally, it seems the draft strategic partnership agreement Kabul has handed over to Washington regarding long-term US presence would require more negotiations to meet US expectations. Karzai called it nicely as a 'mutual document of interests'. He justified its raison d'etre somewhat curiously as providing for Afghanistan protection from 'any far or close interferences'. But he didn't insist on seeking Afghan parliament's approval for it or on consultations with regional powers. He put his weight behind the strategic agreement and saw it as in the mutual interests of Afghanistan and US. Gates' silence was deafening.