WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama presented a unified front with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday in a bid to show their differences were behind them and the United States was on track to start withdrawing troops next year.
The Obama administration, backing away from a publicly tough approach to Karzai widely believed to have backfired, gave the Afghan leader the red-carpet treatment in the culmination of a four-day visit at a pivotal time in the nine-year-old war.
The White House talks were meant not only to reassure the Afghan leader of a long-term U.S. commitment to his government, but to convince a skeptical American public and Congress that the war is worth fighting and funding.
Standing side by side with Karzai, Obama played down strains in relations in recent months marked by Washington’s open criticism of Karzai for tolerating corruption and the Afghan leader’s angry rebukes against his Western allies.
“I am confident we are going to be able to achieve our mission. There are going to be setbacks, there are going to be times when the Afghan government and the U.S. government disagree tactically, but I think our overarching approach is unified,” Obama told reporters.
While U.S. concerns about corruption have not faded and questions remain whether Karzai can be a reliable partner, the Obama administration is making a concerted effort to handle such matters in private and treat the Afghan president with more respect in public.
Injecting a cautionary note, Obama warned of “hard fighting” in coming months as U.S.-led forces prepare to mount an offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. The push awaits completion of a 30,000-troop buildup Obama has ordered.
But he also said he was confident he will be able to meet his promise to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011 as more security duties are turned over to Afghan forces.
“We have begun to reverse the momentum of the insurgency,” Obama said, calling the allied advance slow but steady. Still, bloody attacks by a resurgent Taliban remain a daily fixture.
U.S. officials, mindful that alienating Karzai would risk the support they need from Afghans to make Obama’s strategy work, choreographed his visit to help restore trust.
The joint news conference was an honor usually reserved for top U.S. allies. The two leaders smiled occasionally and looked more at ease than in earlier meetings. But their demeanor was more businesslike than the chummier encounters between Karzai and Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama said the United States backed Karzai’s efforts to open the door to Taliban members who renounced violence and links to al Qaeda, and promised that U.S. forces would do everything possible to avoid further civilian casualties.
Seeking to ease Karzai’s worries about the troop drawdown deadline, Obama made clear that support would continue long after U.S. forces start pulling out. Many Afghans are bound to have doubts, recalling how the United States turned its back on them following the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan in 1989.
Acknowledging the war in Afghanistan had links to neighboring Pakistan, Obama said he saw growing recognition by Pakistani leaders that extremists based there are “a cancer in their midst.”
Obama and Karzai, in their cautious choice of words, seemed determined to move past the recent rocky stretch in relations.
Obama even went as far as saying he was pleased with Karzai’s progress -- a contradiction of the view expressed by top U.S. officials just weeks ago -- and preferred to talk about the need for “good governance” instead of directly addressing the corruption issue.
Karzai, for his part, repeated none of his recent accusations that Western powers were trying to undermine him.
Karzai, whose ties with the Obama administration frayed after he won last year’s fraud-stained Afghan election, acknowledged past differences with Washington, but insisted, “The relationship is strong and has endured.”
Shifting to Capitol Hill to meet U.S. lawmakers who control war spending, Karzai defended his record, saying “fighting against corruption is something that we keep doing every day.”
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid called on the Afghan government to show progress against terrorism if the United States is to continue putting lives and taxpayer dollars on the line. “I also reiterated my longstanding concern about women’s rights in Afghanistan,” he said in a statement.
Republicans had criticized Obama aides for what they saw as browbeating a key ally. After meeting Karzai, Senator John McCain said Karzai had grown into the job and was a “good leader.”
Karzai’s recent outbursts were seen as calculated in part to show the Afghan public he is no U.S. puppet.
Obama is also playing to a domestic audience. With polls showing a majority of Americans against the war, the Democratic president wants to keep Afghanistan from becoming another drag on his party in pivotal congressional elections in November.
Additional reporting by Sue Pleming, Ross Colvin, Steve Holland and Susan Cornwell; editing by Mohammad Zargham