US President Barack Obama (left) welcomed Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) to the US capital Monday for a four-day visit as Washington and Kabul seek to repair relations strained in part by US criticism of Afghan efforts to combat corruption.
AFP - The United States is insisting that cooperation is on track with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, rolling out the red carpet for him after public spats cast a shadow over joint war efforts.
After chiding Karzai for months over alleged corruption and vote-rigging, US officials hope the four-day visit and extended face time with leaders including President Barack Obama will help forge personal bonds and a better working relationship.
The US ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, who had authored a scathing leaked memo that questioned Karzai's reliability as a partner, flew with the Afghan leader on Monday and said interests were "never better aligned."
Through "the talks over the next several days, I think we’re going to emerge with even better alignment," Eikenberry told reporters at the White House.
"Afghanistan is a close friend and ally and of course I highly respect President Karzai in that capacity," he said.
Richard Holbrooke -- the envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan who has had particularly tense ties with Karzai -- personally greeted the Afghan leader as he landed.
"There was a period where the waters got roiled," Holbrooke said afterward. "What I will say categorically... that period ended."
While their leaders meet, senior US and Afghan officials are also due to hold separate talks on cooperating over a range of issues including agriculture and training of the Afghan army and police.
Karzai is also expected to press for greater assurances to avoid civilian casualties and support for plans to integrate Taliban guerrillas.
While few believe that US concerns about Karzai and corruption have disappeared, the Obama administration has made a concerted effort to treat the Afghan leader with greater respect, seeing little to gain from tensions.
A relaxed-looking Karzai cracked jokes at the opening of a small welcoming dinner thrown by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at Blair House, the official guesthouse across from the White House.
The visit comes as the US military gears up for a crucial new stage of Obama's strategy to surge 30,000 extra troops into Afghanistan, in a bid to defeat the Taliban and allow US forces to start coming home next year.
General Stanley McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, told the White House news briefing: "I have confidence that our campaign will succeed."
But he warned that, as US forces pressed on with critical military aspects of the plan, there would be "increased violence."
The violence has helped dent US public backing for the war. A poll released by The Washington Post and ABC News showed weakening support, with 52 percent saying that the war was not worth fighting.
Obama flew secretly to Kabul in March for hastily arranged talks with Karzai, who welcomed him with a meal. Once there, he pressed the Afghan president to end corruption, which US officials worry is eroding Afghan support for the government.
The trip marked a sharp deterioration in relations between Obama and Karzai, who enjoyed warm personal ties with former president George W. Bush, including regular teleconferences.
Karzai triggered US outrage by accusing Western powers of trying to rig last year's elections against him -- contradicting widespread accounts of ballot-stuffing by Karzai supporters.
And just as Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Afghanistan, Karzai invited US nemesis Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of neighboring Iran, who bashed the United States from the presidential palace.
Karzai also raised eyebrows by threatening to join the Taliban unless Western policy changed, a comment the Afghan leader said was misinterpreted.
While many foreign leaders whisk in and out of the White House, Karzai and his aides are expected to spend hours speaking more leisurely with the Obama team's top brass.
"They are looking to invest some time and take some tension out of the relationship by enhancing personal ties with Karzai but also his key cabinet officials," said J. Alexander Thier, the director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the US Institute of Peace.
In a gesture that could play well with the US public, Karzai on Thursday will visit Arlington National Cemetery to pay tribute to US war dead.
Date created : 2010-05-10