WASHINGTON, May 12, 2010 -- 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."
Karzai arrived in Washington on Monday for a four-day visit that includes a full agenda of meetings between U.S. and Afghan military, diplomatic and legislative officials, all aimed at ratcheting down tensions between the two governments.
Clinton took the first step Tuesday morning as she welcomed Karzai to day-long meetings at the State Department, speaking of "trust" between the two sides and a U.S. civilian commitment that will endure after the military leaves.
"This partnership is a long-term commitment by the American people to the Afghan people," she said.
Karzai responded in kind, reversing the inflammatory rhetoric he has used in recent weeks that nearly cost him the meeting with President Obama, thanking the Americans for the blood and treasure they have spent to help Afghanistan. On Tuesday afternoon he visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital, which he called "a very difficult moment."
"Mr. President, to meet with a young man, a very, very young man, who had lost two arms and legs, it was heart-rendering," the Afghan leader said. "And there were other wounded, too, just like I had seen in Afghanistan."
Karzai said that seeing the wounded soldiers showed him the United States' commitment to bringing security to Afghanistan and, by extension, the rest of the world.
Karzai's outreach may help the Obama administration as it seeks support for the increased U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, experts say.
"To the extent that Americans come to believe that Karzai is not committed to the success in the war effort and is not sympathetic to U.S. efforts, that reduces their willingness to sacrifice," said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The American effort to mend fences during the visit started before Karzai even left Kabul.
Karzai arrived with a full delegation in Washington on Monday, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry on a U.S. Air Force flight. The Afghan president was greeted at Andrews Air Force Base by special envoy Richard Holbrooke.
He may not be getting the full pomp and circumstance of a state dinner, but Karzai is scheduled to have lunch with Obama after a joint press conference today and to attend a dinner at the Naval Observatory tonight hosted by Vice President Biden.
On Thursday, Karzai and Clinton are scheduled to meet again at a moderated public discussion at the United States Institute of Peace.
The Obama administration has said that tempers have cooled and the relationship between the two nations has improved since things reached a boiling point last month, but it is clear that there are still tensions and unresolved differences on how to approach critical issues in Afghanistan.
Obama White House Softens Tone Toward Karzai, Afghan Government
"The nature of strategic partnerships like the one between the United States and Afghanistan, they feature ups and downs," Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, Special Assistant to the President for Afghanistan and Pakistan said last week. "But the difference between a mere relationship and a partnership like the one we're talking about here is that partnerships endure the ups and downs and continue to press forward towards the common goals on which the partnership is founded."
Despite the public mending of fences, behind closed doors the Obama administration is expected to push Karzai and his government to do more to combat corruption and improve governance outside the capital.
"If we publicly make demands of the foreign government, especially one with a xenophobic political culture like Afghanistan's, we make them look like puppets if they do what we ask," Biddle said. "To avoid looking like a puppet to foreign powers, many leaders will react to that kind of pressure by digging in their heels. If it is done privately, they don't pay that kind of cost domestically."
Tensions between the Obama administration and Karzai reached a fever pitch just after that surprise visit, when in early April the Afghan president made comments that U.S. officials said "surprised" and "dismayed" them.
On April 1, Karzai launched a verbal assault that the State Department dismissed as a "preposterous claim" that the United States was at the center of the fraud in his nation's elections. Karzai did not back down from his claim and went even further by telling members of the Afghan parliament that the United States was starting to act like an occupier.
One member of parliament at the meeting said Karzai was so angry, the president implied he might have to join the Taliban if the United States did not stop "meddling."
Karzai was not asked to address that comment in today's news conference.
Obama White House Softens Tone Toward Karzai, Afghan Government
After these comments, the White House refused to say whether Karzai was an "ally" and it was clear that the administration was irked by his outbursts.
"There are times in which the actions that he takes are constructive to governance. I would say that the remarks he's made, I can't imagine that anyone in this country found them anything other than troubling," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "So 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."
That comment followed a pattern by the White House to use careful language to characterize the relationship between the two leaders.
En route to Afghanistan for the president's surprise visit in March, national security advisor Gen. James Jones called Karzai an "adequate strategic partner" who was democratically elected in a sovereign nation and said relations between the two presidents were "fine."
This week's visit appears to be aimed at presenting a rosier picture of the relationship between the two nations
"President Obama has expressed his confidence in President Karzai and our work together," Eikenberry said Monday at the White House. "As you know, every relationship, every bilateral relationship, especially one as close as we have with Afghanistan, they experience ups and downs".
The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said that what measures "true partnership" between nations is "the ability when the stakes are as high as they are for Afghanistan and the United States of America, to be able to work our way through difficulties and come back together and still find ourselves well aligned."
When asked if tensions between the two nations have dissipated in recent weeks, The Brookings Institutions' Michael O'Hanlon said the reality is "more complex" than that.
"The administration has not been convincing in going from one end of the spectrum to the other," he said. "They should help Americans understand Karzai's strengths -- which are real and considerable -- as well as his weaknesses and limits and the challenges he faces in Afghanistan."
O'Hanlon said that message would be "more honest and more sustainable."
The inflammatory rhetoric that nearly cost Karzai his meeting with Obama was nowhere to be heard Tuesday when the Afghan leader sat down for a full day of meetings with Clinton.
Instead, Karzai expressed his gratitude for American efforts in his country, and accepted McChrystal's apologies for the civilian casualties that have been a major source of contention.
"Afghanistan will be seeking protection for its civilian population, for which I'm very thankful to Gen. McChrystal, for the effort that he's putting in, for the protection of the Afghan civilians, with results. And it's the first time that when incidents like that occur, that he calls, and if it is -- if it has occurred, apologizes for it, for which we are grateful," the Afghan leader said. "But as we all understand well, we must be working very hard to prevent completely and incompletely, to the extent possible for us, these possibilities of casualties and the consequences that it has for us all."
Clinton Takes Softer Tone with Karzai
Karzai said he is committed to moving beyond the recent tensions.
"We'll be having disagreements on issues from time to time. But that is the sign of a matured relationship and the sign of a steady relationship. And this steady and mature relationship is definitely going to get us the objectives, in pursuit of which we have joined hands to bring security to Afghanistan and by extension to the United States and the rest of the world," he said.
Clinton defined the U.S.-Afghan relationship in similar terms.
"We can't expect the United States and Afghanistan to agree on every issue. We will not. That is a given in a relationship between two sovereign nations," she said. "But President Obama and President Karzai both understand that the ability to disagree on issues of importance to our respective countries and peoples is not an obstacle to achieving our shared objectives. Rather, it reflects a level of trust that is essential to any meaningful dialogue and enduring strategic partnership."
Clinton pledged a U.S. commitment to Afghanistan that will outlast the American troop presence there.
"This partnership is a long-term commitment by the American people to the Afghan people," she said. "And this commitment, Mr. President, will endure long after U.S. combat troops have left, because we have learned the lessons of the past."
O'Hanlon said the Obama administration clearly wants to send a message of partnership with Karzai, but said it should also send a message that the United States will not be "rushing for the exits" out of Afghanistan in July 2011. He said Obama's December speech at West Point, where he laid out the timeline for withdrawal in Afghanistan, was interpreted by some in Afghanistan as just that.
ABC News' Sunlen Miller and Nick Schifrin contributed to this report.