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Barack Obama

Q+A: Prickly Afghan-U.S. relations under scrutiny

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Barack Obama meet on Wednesday looking to restore trust after months of caustic relations.

Here are answers to questions about current relations between Afghanistan and the United States, what the sticking points are and how the tensions are being handled.

WHAT IS THE STATE OF RELATIONS?

Prickly and uneasy is how most analysts see relations between Kabul and Washington. In recent months, sharp words have been exchanged between the White House and Karzai, who has blamed the West for much of the corruption in his country. The general view is that despite differences, it is better to work with him than to marginalize Karzai because both face a common threat from the Taliban and other militants. There also have been tensions between U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke and Karzai, particularly during last year’s flawed elections, but these seem to have eased recently, said a senior official.

WHY ARE GOOD TIES PARTICULARLY IMPORTANT NOW?

The U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan is at a crucial phase, with 30,000 more troops being sent there to fight the war against the Taliban and other militants. In addition, the Obama administration wants to ensure it is on the same page as Karzai before May 29 when he launches a so-called peace “jirga,” or assembly. There is an international conference on Afghanistan in late July in Kabul and parliamentary elections are due in September. The United States and others have promised to channel more than half of international aid through the Afghan government within the next two years. Building competence of local and central authorities is key to this happening.

WHAT ARE THE ISSUES THAT IRK KARZAI AND VICE VERSA?

Afghans are concerned that the United States will abandon the country once military operations are completed. The July 2011 target date announced by Obama for U.S. forces to begin pulling out of Afghanistan has exacerbated that fear. One goal of Karzai’s trip -- which is being compared to a so-called Strategic Dialogue session in March with the Pakistanis -- is to show a long-term commitment by Washington to Kabul. From the U.S. side, there is frustration that Karzai is not following through on promises to tackle rampant corruption. There is also concern over what role Karzai’s brother might play in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, the next big push in the military campaign. Obama will be pushing Karzai to do more to quicken the pace of transition to Afghan control, a key focus of NATO’s meeting in Estonia last month.

IS THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION WORKING AROUND KARZAI?

There is a conscious effort to increase dealings with ministers in Karzai’s cabinet who are seen as more efficient and may improve the governance lacking across Afghanistan. Karzai is bringing most of his cabinet members with him to the United States and U.S. officials will hold separate sessions with them. The administration is under pressure to show Congress it has a strategy to deal with the Afghan leader.

HOW WILL KARZAI BE TREATED IN PUBLIC?

The Obama administration has been debating for weeks how to handle Karzai amid fears that he could make disparaging comments that may annoy Congress or the war-weary U.S. public. Most of his media events will be tightly choreographed, probably with limited chances for questions to push Karzai on some of his more controversial statements.

WHAT ABOUT CONGRESS AND ITS VIEWS?

Congress is becoming increasingly irritated with Karzai, frustrated that he has not done enough to tackle corruption. His recent anti-Western rhetoric is perceived by many as ungrateful while American soldiers die and billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are used to pay for the war. Karzai will have talks with several leading lawmakers, including Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who the administration sent to Kabul last year to convince Karzai to accept a disputed election result. Whether Congress sees Karzai as a reliable partner is important as Obama has asked for $33 billion more to help fund the 30,000 additional U.S. troops being sent to Afghanistan in 2010. Obama wants another $4.5 billion for more foreign aid and civilian operations in Iraq and Afghanistan this year; about $2 billion of this amount is dedicated to Afghanistan.

Editing by Chris Wilson

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