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Karzai and Obama meet to heal strained relations

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is to meet US president Barack Obama at the White House Wednesday, in the first of four days of talks aimed at repairing rocky relations between Kabul and Washington.


REUTERS - US President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart meet Wednesday to mend fences, after months spent trading barbs over alleged vote-rigging and corruption in Hamid Karzai's government.

The White House talks and press conference come after meetings with top US officials, who vowed long-standing commitment to Afghanistan that would outlast the US military presence there.

Vice President Joe Biden will also host a dinner at his residence for the visiting Afghan leader.

The red-carpet treatment comes as the US military gears up for a crucial stage of Obama's strategy to defeat the Taliban and allow the increased US military presence -- nearing 100,000 troops -- to start coming home next year.

On Tuesday, Washington and Kabul's top brass opened broad-ranging talks about boosting agriculture, increasing Afghanistan's transit trade through Pakistan, fighting drug trafficking and training the Afghan army and police.

Both sides mapped out what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called their "shared" future.

"We will not abandon the Afghan people," the chief US diplomat said as she sat next to Karzai before a U-shaped table where 40 US and Afghan ministers had gathered in the State Department's ornate Benjamin Franklin room.

"Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future."

In the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States, US officials regretted having turned their backs on Afghanistan after mujahedeen fighters and other countries drove Soviet occupiers from the rugged mountainous country.

Ignoring his recent public spats with Washington, Karzai echoed Clinton's support for an enduring relationship.

"Afghanistan is known around the world for being a country that remembers a friend -- and for long. And that assurance I can give you on behalf of the Afghan people," he said.

Karzai later joined Clinton for a tour of Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, where he met US soldiers who lost limbs during combat in Afghanistan. He described the visit as an "extremely painful moment" and a "stark reminder" of the difficult road that lies ahead.

Though both sought to put past rows behind them, Clinton and Karzai anticipated further disagreements but said would only reveal the strength of their ties.

While improving security is "an essential first step" in Afghanistan, Clinton said, long-term stability depends on economic development and good governance, including fighting corruption.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the US Congress will press Karzai to rein in corruption even as lawmakers to welcome him for a host of meetings on Thursday. "We do have questions that require answers," she said.

Despite promising to deal with endemic corruption when he took office for five more years in November, Karzai is widely considered to have taken little action other than blaming donor nations for lax supervision of pledged aid.

Karzai also raised his own government's demands for a better relationship.

"Afghanistan will seek respect for its judicial independence. Afghanistan will be seeking protection for its civilian population," he said, wearing his trademark cap and robes.

He praised recent efforts by General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, to shield civilians from harm, but called for further efforts.

Karzai was also expected to press for greater support for plans to integrate Taliban insurgents -- over which Washington has expressed some misgivings.

McChrystal, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen held talks with Afghan defense and security officials, including Defense Minister Mohammad Rahim Wardak.

And as part of efforts to bolster defense ties, both sides agreed to begin a regular high-level defense dialogue, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Karzai promised his government would assume its responsibilities in developing Afghanistan so his war-torn country "is no longer a burden on your shoulders."

Clinton said the series of meetings in Washington would help the Karzai government present a more detailed plan for strengthening institutions at an international conference in Kabul on July 20, which builds on talks in London in January.

After four days of talks in Washington, the Afghan leader is also scheduled to visit Fort Campbell, Kentucky, headquarters of the US Army's 101st Airborne Division, on Friday, weeks before the division deploys to Afghanistan.

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