President Obama intends to adopt a tougher line toward Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, as part of a new American approach to Afghanistan that will put more emphasis on waging war than on development, senior administration officials said Tuesday.
Mr. Karzai is now seen as a potential impediment to American goals in Afghanistan, the officials said, because corruption has become rampant in his government, contributing to a flourishing drug trade and the resurgence of the Taliban.
Among those pressing for Mr. Karzai to do more, the officials said, are Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The officials portrayed the approach as a departure from that of President Bush, who held video conferences with Mr. Karzai every two weeks and sought to emphasize the American role in rebuilding Afghanistan and its civil institutions.
They said that the Obama administration would work with provincial leaders as an alternative to the central government, and that it would leave economic development and nation-building increasingly to European allies, so that American forces could focus on the fight against insurgents.
“If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who served under Mr. Bush and is staying on under Mr. Obama, told Congress on Tuesday. He said there was not enough “time, patience or money” to pursue overly ambitious goals in Afghanistan, and he called the war there as “our greatest military challenge.”
Mr. Gates said last week that previous American goals for Afghanistan had been “too broad and too far into the future,” language that differed from Mr. Bush’s policies.
NATO has not met its pledges for combat troops, transport helicopters, military trainers and other support personnel in Afghanistan, and Mr. Gates has openly criticized the United States’ NATO allies for not fulfilling their promises.
Mr. Holbrooke is preparing to travel to the region, and administration officials said he would ask more of Mr. Karzai, particularly on fighting corruption, aides said, as part of what they described as a “more for more” approach.
Mr. Karzai is facing re-election this year, and it is not clear whether Mr. Obama and his aides intend to support his candidacy. The administration will be watching, aides said, to see if Mr. Karzai responds to demands from the United States and its NATO allies that he arrest associates, including his half-brother, whom Western officials have accused of smuggling drugs in Kandahar.
Before taking office as vice president last week, Mr. Biden traveled to Afghanistan in his role as the departing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He met with Mr. Karzai and warned him that the Obama administration would expect more of him than Mr. Bush did, administration officials said. He told Mr. Karzai that Mr. Obama would be discontinuing the video calls that Mr. Karzai enjoyed with Mr. Bush, said a senior official, who added that Mr. Obama expected Mr. Karzai to do more to crack down on corruption.
After his return from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden, who has had a contentious relationship with Mr. Karzai, described the situation there as “a real mess.”
An election is scheduled to be held no later than the fall, under Afghanistan’s Constitution. Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who is a former United States ambassador to the United Nations and is viewed as a possible challenger to Mr. Karzai, warned that the Obama administration must tread carefully as it recalibrated its Afghanistan policy.
“If it looks like we’re abandoning the central government and focusing just on the local areas, we will run afoul of Afghan politics,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “Some will regard it as an effort to break up the Afghan state, which would be regarded as hostile policy.”
Mr. Obama is preparing to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan over the next two years, perhaps to more than 60,000 from about 34,000 now. But Mr. Gates indicated Tuesday that the administration would move slowly, at least for now. He outlined plans for an increase of about 12,000 troops by midsummer but cautioned that any decision on more troops beyond that might have to wait until late 2009, given the need for barracks and other infrastructure.
With the forces of the Taliban and Al Qaeda mounting more aggressive operations in eastern and southern Afghanistan, administration officials said they saw little option but to focus on the military campaign. They said Europeans would be asked to pick up more of the work on reconstruction, police training and cooperation with the Afghan government. They also said much of the international effort might shift to helping local governments and institutions, and away from the government in Kabul.
“It’s not about dumping reconstruction at all,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic delicacy of the subject. “What we’re trying to do is to focus on the Al Qaeda problem. That has to be our first priority.”
Mr. Gates said Tuesday that under the redefined Afghan strategy, it would be vital for NATO allies to “provide more civilian support.” In particular, he said, the allies should be more responsible for building civil society institutions in Afghanistan, a task that had been falling to American forces. He also demanded that allies “step up to the plate” and defray costs of expanding the Afghan Army, an emerging power center, whose leaders could emerge as rivals to Mr. Karzai.
Mr. Gates added that the United States should focus on limited goals. “My own personal view is that our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and our allies, and whatever else we need to do flows from that objective,” he said.