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Obama Clash With Karzai Raises Concerns Ahead of Kandahar Offensive

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at a meeting in Kandahar April 4. (Reuters Photo)

Timing is everything. And for the out-in-the-open feud between President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the timing is very, very bad. 

Questions are being raised about the way the Obama administration is handling its public clash with Karzai, given that 30,000 U.S. troops are surging into the country on the president's orders, that Western forces are preparing for a major offensive on the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar this summer and that, for better or worse, Karzai is the democratically elected leader of his country. 

"It doesn't create stability in the region to have a public debate with an ally in an incredibly volatile part of the world," Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., said Wednesday. 

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged on Tuesday that Karzai is Afghanistan's elected leader -- but that was about as far as he'd go. He repeatedly declined to call Karzai an "ally" of the United States, and he hung the Obama administration's carrot far behind the stick. 

"Our position on this is that when the Afghan leaders take steps to improve governance and root out corruption, then the president will say kind words," Gibbs said. "We'll continue to speak out again if -- if need be." 

At the same time, Gibbs suggested the White House could cancel the May 12 meeting in Washington that Obama and Karzai have scheduled, though the administration had maintained for days that the meeting wouldn't be compromised as a result of Karzai's recent outbursts. 

James Dobbins, former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan under the Bush administration, told FoxNews.com he doesn't expect the current disagreement to have a "tactical impact" on the looming offensive in Kandahar, but said the "name-calling" only "heightens the level of controversy associated with it." 

Obama is hardly alone in pressuring Karzai to be a more effective leader and ensure the Taliban don't try to fill the void left by a hollow government, but the tone and tack the U.S. president is taking has Dobbins and others worried. 

"If it wasn't corrupt and incompetent, the country wouldn't need help," said Dobbins, who is now the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center with the RAND Corporation. "I think (Obama and Karzai) got off to a bad start (last year). ... I hope that they'll both step back and begin to discuss their concerns more privately and adopt a much more positive tone."

Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, an Army intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 and now works at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, said the United States needs Karzai's full support not to fight the Taliban in Kandahar but to keep the region out of enemy hands after the offensive.

The Afghan president's recent remarks span the gamut from alleged threats to join the Taliban to accusations of Western meddling in his disputed presidential election -- though not all those remarks were in public venues, and the Karzai administration has questioned the credibility of some media accounts. 

"That was a, I think, a funny thing in the media. And we really -- we were shocked to see such kind of comments in the media," Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said Wednesday in response to the Taliban remark. 

But the Obama administration has used the comments to sustain criticism of the Karzai administration that dates back to the presidential campaign, when Obama started pressing Karzai to crack down on corruption in Kabul and the drug trade in his country. 

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and former member of the State Department's International Security Advisory Board, suggested Obama should take a more subtle approach. 

"You can find ways to put pressure and make him feel that you are doing it from (a) position of respect and trust, but if you go right to his face publicly, you tend not to get a good response and frankly we should know that by now," he said. "Even if you have some basis for being frustrated, you have to be careful how you handle that frustration. That's true for both sides." 

O'Hanlon said the United States was "as involved as anyone in elevating" Karzai, so should not "expect change overnight." 

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens said U.S. officials had similar concerns about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki before the troop build-up in that country, but that his leadership turned out to be more effective than expected. 

"You go to war with the allies that you have, and not all of them are savory or particularly statesmanlike, and we happen to be going to war in Afghanistan presumptively with President Karzai on our side," he said. "Some similar thinking ought to apply here. We really ought to try to be keeping our differences ... behind closed doors rather than airing them so publicly and trying to humiliate our allies." 

The two countries tried to patch things up on Friday, when Karzai called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to clarify his comments in which he accused the West of meddling in the Afghan election last year. Officials described the conversation as positive. 

But The Wall Street Journal reported that he told local officials the following day that the Taliban could gain strength if the United States doesn't stop meddling and suggested he would join with them if his government doesn't support him in taking control of the United Nation's election watchdog in his country. 

Gibbs said Monday that he doesn't "put a lot of stake into everything that he said," and that the White House is still focusing on working with the Karzai administration. 

But on Tuesday, Gibbs threw into question next month's meeting between Obama and Karzai. 

"We certainly would evaluate whatever continued or further remarks President Karzai makes as to whether that's constructive to have such a meeting," he told reporters.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday he doesn't expect the tension to interfere with military operations. 

"Too much is at stake," he said. 

FoxNews.com's Judson Berger and Fox News' Mike Emanuel contributed to this report.