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

Obama, Karzai meet at White House as two nations seek to smooth tensions.

ByABC News
May 11, 2010, 5:34 PM

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.