Obama meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010; A01

President Obama and his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, appeared side by side Wednesday in a stiff, choreographed effort to demonstrate that they have set aside differences over how to prosecute the war in Afghanistan.

Both acknowledged that the war is likely to worsen in the months ahead as U.S. troops push into insurgent strongholds.

But the events at the White House, starting in the Oval Office and concluding with a private moment between presidents after lunch in the Cabinet Room, were as much about shoring up the symbolism of a sometimes-troubled partnership as they were about the substance of how to fight the war.

Although there were few flourishes of warmth between the men, both Obama and Karzai appear to have gotten what they sought from the Afghan president's extended visit -- a chance to clear the air after weeks of recriminations and public acknowledgments, delivered by each leader in unusually personal terms, of the political difficulties the other faces in maintaining support for the war at home.

Obama talked about his moral stake in protecting Afghan civilians, and Karzai reflected on his visit with a badly wounded American soldier at Walter Reed Army Medical Center the previous day.

"We are in a campaign against terrorism together," Karzai said at a news conference held in the ornate East Room of the White House. "And definitely days have come in which we have had differences of opinion, and definitely days in the future will come in which we have differences of opinion. But the relationship between the two governments and the two nations is strong and well-rooted."

On substance, Obama told reporters he believes the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is proceeding on schedule, reaffirming his intention to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from the country in July 2011. He also endorsed Karzai's plan to begin peeling off disaffected Taliban fighters in a peace conference later this month, saying that an Afghan-led "political component" is essential to the overall strategy.

Karzai, who in a recent fit of pique with the United States threatened to join the Taliban, came to Washington in part to secure Obama's blessing for his "reintegration" plan, though a longer-term approach for dealing with Taliban leaders remains unclear. Addressing U.S. concerns over who would qualify for amnesty, Karzai said he is focusing on the "thousands" of insurgents who are not fighting for ideological reasons or against U.S. long-term interests.

'Important months'

The visit comes ahead of an intensive several months of political and military initiatives in Afghanistan that U.S. officials say could determine the success or failure of Obama's surge strategy.

Later this month, Karzai plans to convene the first peace conference to draw out casually committed Taliban foot soldiers, followed in the summer by the Kabul Conference, which will bring together countries that provide military and financial support to the Afghanistan war effort.

At the same time, the U.S. military will begin its push into Kandahar, the heart of Taliban control. The success of such military operations, Obama said, would make it far easier for Karzai to negotiate from a position of strength with Taliban fighters.

"We think these are several extremely important months," said a senior administration official involved in Afghanistan policy, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking on the issue. "This meeting was a way to make sure we're coordinated and on the same page as this period gets going."

Rehabilitating the partnership with Karzai is also important politically for Obama, who went against many in his own party in deciding to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan last fall. About half of them have now arrived, with the rest scheduled to land by the end of the summer, bringing the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to about 100,000.

The military operations are designed to clear Taliban strongholds, making way for the Afghan government to take control. But Obama's senior advisers have disagreed sharply over whether Karzai is a reliable and effective partner in the U.S.-led war effort.

Unified message

Before this week's visit, Obama warned his team that a unified message of support for the prideful Afghan president was essential to the relationship. On Wednesday, he said that "our job is to be a good friend and to be frank with President Karzai in saying here's where we think we've got to put more effort."

The day began with a relatively large Oval Office meeting that included Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and four other senior advisers.

Senior administration officials described the meeting as a constructive appraisal of security operations and government reforms, as well as a discussion of the U.S.-Afghan relationship after July 2011. It also touched on issues particularly important to Karzai's immediate domestic political standing, including a U.S. pledge to turn over control of detention operations to the Afghan government and the administration's concern over Afghan civilian casualties.

"When there is a civilian casualty, that is not just a political problem for me," Obama said. "I am ultimately accountable, just as General McChrystal is accountable, for somebody who is not on the battlefield who got killed. And that is something I have got to carry with me."

After the meeting, Obama's senior advisers on Afghanistan filed into the East Room and filled the front row of seats set up for the joint news conference, an event Obama has held only rarely with visiting heads of state. Karzai wore his customary dark blue robes and hat, Obama a dark suit and pale blue tie. There was a tense formality to the event with each leader ostentatiously emphasizing the health of the U.S.-Afghan partnership, while calling past differences a sign of candor between close friends.

"A lot of them were simply overstated," Obama said of what he called "perceived differences" that emerged most recently after his late March visit to Kabul.

For his part, Karzai spoke about his visit to Walter Reed as a way of underscoring his country's "deep, heartfelt gratitude" toward the United States.

"It was a very difficult moment for me, Mr. President, to meet with a young man -- a very, very young man -- who had lost two arms and legs," Karzai said.

Biden hosted a dinner for Karzai on Wednesday evening, and on Thursday, the Afghan president is scheduled to take a long walk with Clinton -- the administration official he perhaps trusts more than any other.

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