- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2010

President Obama on Wednesday predicted that there will be “hard fighting” as U.S. forces push into the Taliban’s birthplace of Kandahar, but he said troops are on track to begin pulling out of Afghanistan next year and vowed not to let recent strains in his relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai undermine the war.

Standing alongside Mr. Karzai for a news conference at the White House, Mr. Obama said many reports about conflicts between the two leaders were “overstated” and that their bond is stronger than ever.

“Obviously there are going to be tensions in such a complicated, difficult environment,” Mr. Obama said in the lengthy joint news conference. “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, one that I hope we can memorialize in a declaration by the end of this year.”

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Mr. Karzai and his entourage of government ministers are visiting several weeks after Mr. Obama’s stealthy trip to Kabul, where he pressed the Afghan leader to do more to root out corruption. Mr. Karzai later lashed out, accusing the West of attempting to tarnish his victory in a widely criticized election last summer and of leaking critical private conversations.

Neither leader acknowledged the disagreements in detail, and both emphasized shared goals of denying a safe haven to members of the militant Taliban movement by improving security and governance in Afghanistan.

“We are in a campaign against terrorism together. There are days we are happy, there are days that we are not happy,” Mr. Karzai said. “I believe what you saw in the past few months is reflective of a deep and strong relationship.”

Mr. Obama has made Afghanistan a foreign policy priority after years of what he described as “some drift” under the administration of President George W. Bush. In arguably his most important decision since taking office, he ordered 30,000 additional U.S. troops to the war-torn nation, more than half of whom have already arrived.

Together with NATO and Afghan forces, the U.S. has targeted Taliban strongholds to the south, most recently in a 10-month effort to oust them from Helmand province. Next month, coalition troops hope to rout insurgents from neighboring Kandahar, the densely populated birthplace of the Taliban, which ruled the country from there prior to the U.S. invasion in 2001. The White House has warned that because the area is unique, the Kandahar effort will be a long and nontraditional operation.

Complicating the mission is the fact that Mr. Karzai’s half-brother is a senior figure in the local government in Kandahar that has clashed in the past with U.S. and allied leaders.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan who is in Washington for Mr. Karzai’s visit, earlier this week said the training of Afghan security forces is “largely on track” ahead of the drawdown of U.S. troops next summer. But he warned of increased violence as coalition forces move into Taliban-controlled areas, where they hope to boost confidence in the Afghan government by providing security so that citizens can start to rebuild.

“Our efforts in Afghanistan are ultimately about changing the perceptions of people. Afghans long impacted by conflict and struggle believe more of what they see than what they hear. Only when they experience security from coercion and only when they benefit from better governance will they begin to believe in the possibilities of the future,” Gen. McChrystal told reporters this week.

Mr. Obama on Wednesday sought to reassure Mr. Karzai and the Afghan people that the U.S. commitment to their country won’t end in July 2011 — the date he set last year for U.S. troops to begin to withdraw. He promised a long-term relationship in which U.S. resources will continue to be pumped into the troubled country.

“We are not suddenly, as of July 2011, finished with Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama also stressed that Britain’s new prime minister, Conservative leader David Cameron, has reiterated London’s commitment to Afghanistan. Of 46 nations that contribute troops to the effort, Britain provides the second highest number after the U.S. at almost 10,000.

“He reaffirmed — without me bringing it up — his commitment to our strategy in Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama said of the new British leader when they spoke by telephone Wednesday.

The two leaders briefed reporters after meeting in the Oval Office and before lunch at the White House. Mr. Karzai, who met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier in the week, also made what he described as an emotional visit to wounded U.S. veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Mr. Karzai is visiting Washington weeks before he hosts a three-day peace assembly, called a “jirga,” during which his government hopes to solicit ideas from Afghan citizens on how to reintegrate “non-ideological” members of the Taliban into society. The United States has said any reconciliation efforts must be Afghan-led and require insurgents to put down their arms, renounce their ties to terrorism and accept Afghanistan’s constitution.

In July, the Karzai government will hold its first international conference in Kabul, where the nation is expected to deliver detailed plans for implementing promises to abide by the rule of law. Though Mr. Karzai has made a series of high-profile pledges to fight corruption and respect judicial independence, he has continually come under fire for centralizing power and not doing enough to clean up rampant nepotism.

The U.S. has faced criticism for working with Mr. Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, an influential tribal leader in Kandahar whose rumored ties to the drug trade have sparked accusations that he is undermining efforts to oust the Taliban from southern Afghanistan.

Mr. Karzai and Mr. Obama spoke candidly about the problem of civilian casualties. Mr. Karzai said his host expressed concern about innocents being killed as a “human issue,” not a political issue.

He also noted that the situation has improved with the arrival of Gen. McChrystal, who has urged U.S. troops to be more cautious and avoid night raids if possible.

Mr. Obama spoke at length about the personal toll that reports of Afghan civilian casualties had taken on him.

“I am ultimately accountable, just as Gen. McChrystal is accountable, for somebody who’s not on the battlefield who got killed. And that is something I have to carry with me and that anybody who’s involved in the military operation has to carry with them,” the president said.

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