Obama, Karzai Point to Progress in Afghanistan but Admit to Disagreements

The Obama administration has gone to great lengths this week to smooth over relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, or at least to present an image of a partnership that has improved after weeks of heightened tensions.

President Obama dismissed reports of frayed relations between the two nations at a news conference today after an Oval Office meeting.

"With respect to perceived tensions between the U.S. government and the Afghan government, let me begin by saying a lot of them were simply overstated," he said.

Obama and Karzai emphasized that while there will be differences of opinion and disagreements, the two sides can agree that there has been progress in Afghanistan though serious challenges remain.

"I am very comfortable with the strong efforts that President Karzai has made thus far, and I think that we both agree that we're going to have to make more efforts in the future," Obama said. "And there are going to be setbacks. There are going to be times where our governments disagree on a particular tactic. But what I'm very confident about is that we share a broad strategy."

The visit by the Afghan leader comes as the U.S. military is gearing up for an offensive in the southern region of Kandahar, where the Taliban originated and where they remain strong.

Obama said today that he is confident that the United States will be able to reduce its troop strength in Afghanistan by the July 2011, following the timeline for withdrawal that he laid out last year. But he stressed that that date does not end the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

"After July 2011, we are still going to have an interest in making sure that Afghanistan is secure, that economic development is taking place, that good governance is being promoted," he said.

Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan in late March, his first trip to the nation as president. There Obama met with Karzai at his presidential palace in Kabul and delivered a pointed message -- the Afghan government needs to step up its efforts to fight corruption.

That effort was at the center of their discussions today, but the president's tone was softer than it had been just six weeks ago.

"I want to acknowledge the progress that has been made, including strengthening anti-corruption efforts, improving governance at provincial and district levels, and progress toward credible parliamentary elections later this year," Obama said. "Of course, President Karzai and I both acknowledge that much more work needs to be done."

On Tuesday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton applauded Karzai for his work combating corruption but said that there still needs to be a "common and concerted effort" from the Afghan government to make continued progress.

Reducing civilian casualties were also the agenda for the meetings and today Obama said the U.S. has "taken extraordinary measures" to avoid that.

The president was blunt: "We have an interest in reducing civilian casualties because I don't want civilians killed. And we are going to do everything we can to prevent that."

Karzai said Tuesday he was "thankful" for the efforts that the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has made for "the protection of the Afghan civilians."

"It's the first time that when incidents like that occur, that he calls," Karzai said. "If it has occurred, apologizes for it, for which we are grateful."

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