Tales from the Trail

The First Draft: Kerry reports in after Kabul visit

Senator John Kerry, who once aspired to host meetings in the Oval Office, will be visiting President Barack Obama in that room Wednesday to talk about his recent trip to Afghanistan.

Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was credited with playing a key role in AFGHANISTAN/convincing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to agree to a second round of voting in a disputed national election.

A picture of him whispering into Karzai’s ear on Tuesday was splashed across the major U.S. newspapers on Wednesday and news programs gave detailed reports on Kerry’s behind-the-scenes shuttle diplomacy.

ABC news said over the last five days in Afghanistan, Kerry acted more like a secretary of state than a senator as he played a central role in brokering the agreement with Karzai and his main rival Abdullah Abdullah.

In Kabul on Tuesday after hours of talks with Karzai, Kerry said the Nov. 7 run-off would be difficult and made a point to praise the Afghan leader for endorsing the vote.

The First Draft: Clinton spills the beans?

After being upstaged by her own boss as she announced a new Sudan policy on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a special effort to let the media know she had a secret: after much pressure and delay Afghan President Hamid Karzai would announce on Tuesday how he planned to handle his country’s disputed elections.

Clinton, who already had a briefing with the media in the morning to talk about Sudan, made a brief statement alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Then she walked him out of the room and came back and invited a question about Afghanistan.

It was then that Clinton mentioned that Karzai would be making an announcement on Tuesday, though she said she did not wish to preempt the Afghan leader’s news.

from Summit Notebook:

Grassley grades Obama’s performance C to F

We asked Senator Charles Grassley to grade President Barack Obama's performance (close your ears Sasha and Malia) and the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee was a bit of a tough schoolmaster.

"He's still learning an awful lot," Grassley said at a Reuters Washington Summit.

But Obama gets a D on foreign policy, a C on domestic policy, and an F on trade (ouch!)

The First Draft: questions of fraud and hoax

If Afghanistan has a runoff election, how does that affect President Barack Obama’s decisions on a new Afghan strategy? Will it speed up his decision-making or hamper it?

The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission is close to a verdict in its investigation of Afghanistan’s August presidential election that has been marred by allegations of widespread fraud.

The Washington Post reports that a runoff is expected, citing officials familiar with the results as saying the investigation had already cut incumbent President Hamid Karzai’s vote tally to about 47 percent.

The First Draft: No Decisions

Beau Biden, son of the vice president, says he is considering running for his dad’s Senate seat but hasn’t made a decision yet.

IRAQ/BIDEN“I’ve been away from my family for a year, first things first,” Biden said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” after returning from Iraq with the Army National Guard. “There’s time to make that decision.”

“Look, am I considering it? Absolutely. Absolutely,” Biden, who is Delaware’s attorney general, said. “But I’ll be making the decision in due course.”

from Global News Journal:

Afghanistan’s protracted election sours the mood

An atmosphere of stale defensiveness has sunk over Kabul. The mood has been lowered by the protracted saga of the Afghan election count, almost two months on from the first round August 20 vote. It's a drama veering towards farce more often than post-modern play, as we wait endlessly for a result, that like Godot, does not want to come.

Winter has not yet arrived in Kabul, though the evenings are cold, quickly taking the heat of the sun out of the day. Afghan politicians are frustrated and twitchy, second-guessing the reasons for the U.N.-backed election watchdog's plodding. We are being solidly methodological to retain the confidence of all, says the Electoral Complaints Commission, as it examines thousands of dodgy votes. A thankless task, most likely. The ECC officials will be puzzling over whether a box of votes has been mass-endorsed for one candidate, and should not stand, or if the suspiciously similar ticks on the ballot paper are attributable to only one man in the village knowing how to write. Many of the rural voters will never have held a pen in their hand, argued one official. It is natural in such a tribal society for the village to establish a consensus on who to support. Do such ballot papers count? Remember Florida, and how 'hanging chads' and the U.S. Supreme Court gave George W. Bush the presidency over Al Gore? It's that kind of agony.

Behind the scenes the whispers are that hesitation and delay are because the outcome is excruciatingly close, too close to call. President Hamid Karzai, once set clear for victory, may find first round success ripped from his grasp by the disqualification of votes stuffed into ballot boxes by his supporters. He'll likely win a second round, if it happens, against his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah; but there will have been a loss of dignity, of self-confidence and of an opportunity to stabilise Afghanistan and get on with fighting the Taliban.

Reasoning with the Taliban

AFGHANISTAN/OBAMAIn the past few weeks, as President Barack Obama closes in on a decision about sending more troops to Afghanistan, a couple of alluring ideas have resurfaced in Washington.

The first is that talks with the Taliban, or with members of the fundamentalist Islamist movement, might be worth pursuing more agressively, to advance the day that U.S. troops could begin to leave.

The second is the suggestion the Taliban in Afghanistan might be willing to sever its ties to al Qaeda, or that growing Taliban influence there may not directly threaten the United States.

The First Draft: Hillary Clinton marginalized? If you have to ask…

IRISH/Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent the weekend in Switzerland and Ireland, but landed on the morning talk shows on Monday, fending off questions about whether she has been marginalized in the Obama administration. It’s not considered a good sign when people start asking this question in Washington, because the implication is that the answer is “yes.”

Clinton had no comment when newscaster Ann Curry on  NBC’s “Today” program asked whether she should be more visible on such hot-button issues as Iran and Afghanistan. But she responded fully when asked about concerns that the “highest-ranking woman in the United States needs to fight against being marginalized.”

“I find it absurd, I find it beyond any realistic assessment of what I’m doing every day,” Clinton said. “I believe in delegating power. I’m not one of those people who feels like I have to have my face in the front of the newspaper or on the TV every moment of the day. It would be irresponsible and negligent were I to say, ‘Oh no, everything must come to me!’”

What really happened in Obama, McCain Afghan exchange

It sounded like a pretty sexy story — a clash of the titans between President Barack Obama and Republican Senator John McCain in the big White House meeting yesterday on Afghanistan. USA/

But the McCain folks are pushing back against this notion that tempers were flaring between Obama and McCain as reported by major media outlets.

McCain has made no secret of what he feels is an urgent need to increase U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and he repeated that appeal in the meeting, saying he hopes the president will make his decision soon and “not in a leisurely fashion,” according to McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan.

The First Draft: David Letterman and the Dalai Lama

CANADA/This is one of those Washington days that seems to defy a theme. Consider:

Iran is the topic at the Senate Banking Committee, where officials from the State and Treasury departments are set to testify on economic sanctions against Tehran.

Afghanistan is expected to be front and center when President Barack Obama briefs congressional leaders about his Afghan strategy.

Pakistan‘s foreign minister has a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.