* U.S. ambassador says Karzai has 'much to do'
* Karzai plans to raise issue of civilian casualties
* U.S. general promises big effort to reduce deaths
(Adds details on casualties, Senator Franken comments)
By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, May 10 Afghan President Hamid
Karzai began a trip to Washington on Monday, planning to press
the Obama administration hard on civilian casualties and facing
renewed pressure on weak governance and corruption.
Karzai spokesman Waheed Omer predicted "frank" exchanges
during the four-day trip, aimed at showing a united front after
weeks of public bickering between the White House and the
Afghan leader at a pivotal time in the nine-year war.
"However nice we can be, we will raise issues that we
believe that if addressed jointly by Afghanistan and the United
States will help us strengthen this partnership," Omer said at
a briefing at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Washington.
High on the agenda for Wednesday's meeting with President
Barack Obama will be Afghan concerns about civilian casualties,
Omer said, as well as night raids.
Rising civilian casualties have undermined public support
for the presence of U.S. and other foreign forces in the
country. More than 2,400 Afghan civilians were killed in 2009,
making it the deadliest year of the war. Many of those were
killed by insurgents.
The Pentagon has acknowledged that NATO forces killed 49
civilians between October and March.
U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, who is in charge of U.S.
and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said minimizing civilian
casualties was key for his counterinsurgency strategy to work.
"Inside Afghanistan the importance of reducing those
casualties to convince the Afghan people that we are here for
their welfare is absolutely strategic and so we give it that
level of effort," he told reporters at a White House briefing.
CORRUPTION ON AGENDA
U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, who has
been critical of Karzai in the past, said "increasing
accountability" of the Afghan government was another important
topic on the agenda, adding there were signs of progress.
"Ultimately though, the customer that has to be satisfied
is the people of Afghanistan," Eikenberry said. "Much has to be
done," he added, in tackling corruption and better governance.
Omer defended his government's efforts. "Corruption is not
only something connected to the Afghan government," he said.
Karzai incensed the Obama administration and Congress in
recent months by blaming much of the corruption on Western
donors, who he said also were responsible for some of the
election fraud in last year's flawed poll.
Eikenberry said every relationship experienced "ups and
downs" and Obama had full confidence in Karzai, who will get
the red carpet treatment during his visit.
"What measures true partnership is the ability when the
stakes are as high as they are for Afghanistan and the United
States of America to be able to work our way through
difficulties and come back together," said the ambassador.
But in private, the message from Obama is expected to be
firm -- that Washington wants to start pulling out U.S. troops
from Afghanistan in July 2011 and Karzai must do a better job
if he wants to sustain U.S. public support for the war.
A Washington Post and ABC News poll on Sunday showed 52
percent of Americans think it is not a war worth fighting for
the United States, which invaded Afghanistan to oust al Qaeda
and the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Karzai is expected to get some heat from Capitol Hill,
where pressure is growing for Afghans to take more
responsibility both militarily and in rebuilding the country.
Democratic Senator Al Franken said when he was in
Afghanistan in January, he saw more U.S. State Department
officials willing to rebuild the country than Afghans.
"I kept wondering where are the Afghan officials from
Kabul, out in the field with their American international
counterparts, just as the Afghan soldiers are partnering with
international forces?" Franken said.
Karzai's visit comes at an important juncture in the war,
with 30,000 additional U.S. troops expected there by the end of
August and an upcoming military offensive to take full control
of Kandahar, the spiritual hub of the Taliban in the south.
Karzai is expected to push for more equipment and help for
training Afghan security forces. He also probably will discuss
a growing worry among many Afghans that U.S. commitment to the
country will wane quickly once it starts withdrawing troops.
More immediately, there will be a so-called grand council
of Afghans, or peace "jirga," due to start in Kabul on May 29
to discuss how to make peace with the insurgents.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Ross Colvin and Susan
Cornwell; editing by Mohammad Zargham)