The State Department Monday rejected as nonsense a published report that says the United States and key allies want to create a new senior post in the Afghan government to bypass President Hamid Karzai. The comments came as the Obama administration neared completion of a review of U.S. Afghan policy.
Officials here are not volunteering any ringing endorsements of the way President Karzai is handling his job, but they are rejecting the notion that the United States and European allies will push for creation of a new executive post in the Afghan government - a prime minister or a similar mandate - to dilute Mr. Karzai's powers.
The British newspaper the Guardian reported Monday that altering the role of Mr. Karzai, who is accused by some western officials of tolerating corruption and mismanagement, is one possible element of a revised Afghan policy to be announced by the Obama administration.
In a talk with reporters, echoing comments in Europe by U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, State Department Acting Spokesman Robert Wood termed the Guardian report "absolute nonsense" and said that changes in governmental structure there are for the Afghans to decide.
The comments came as the Obama administration neared announcement of at least the main elements of a revised Afghan policy based on the review ordered by President Obama shortly after he took office in January.
The President gave apparent clues to the content of the new policy in a broadcast interview late Sunday, saying that while he has ordered additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, there has to be an exit strategy for U.S. forces and a sense that policy is not in "perpetual drift."
Spokesman Wood says the administration is looking for the "right mix" of political, economic and military factors to stabilize what he termed a "deteriorating" situation in Afghanistan and Pakistani border areas, and that the ultimate aim is to allow Afghans to take responsibility and control of their own security:
"We don't want to be in Afghanistan any longer than necessary," said Robert Wood. "The Afghan people do not want us in Afghanistan any longer than necessary. So the challenge for us as an international community is to try to make sure we're marshaling our resources, our efforts, so that we can do the job and leave. And what we're trying to work out now in our review is what are the best modalities for taking that effort forward."
Administration officials have not been specific about the timing of announcements on the policy review, other than to say that they will come before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends a U.N.-organized international conference on Afghanistan at the end of this month at the Hague.
U.S. officials say they expect Iran to attend the meeting co-hosted by the Afghan government and the Netherlands. They said despite the administration's stated commitment to dialogue with Tehran, there is no current plan for a meeting at the Hague between Clinton and Iranian officials.
The State Department said Monday the administration still has a hand extended to Iran despite the chilly reaction by Iran's supreme leader to Mr. Obama's videotaped holiday greeting to Iran late last week, in which he said the United States seeks honest engagement with Iran's Islamic government based on mutual respect.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in an address Saturday despite the new administration's slogan of change, there has been no sign of genuine change in what he termed hostile U.S. policies toward Iran.
A senior State department official who spoke to reporters Monday said the sharp tone of the Iranian leader's comments was not a surprise. He said the administration will be seeking to engage Iran directly in the coming weeks, and that in his words "we'll have to see if they're willing to engage back."