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Karzai, Panetta to keep concerns private

KABUL (Reuters) - Leon Panetta, on his first trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary, said he and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed on Saturday that the two of them would resolve any future differences in private.

Panetta did not delve into the history of strained U.S. relations with the Afghan leader, whose past public outbursts -- often seen as critical of the United States -- have stoked anxiety in Washington about the nearly decade-old war.

U.S. critics, in turn, chide Karzai for failing to do enough about rampant corruption needed to win the confidence of Afghans, even as Washington spends billions on a military campaign to defeat Taliban foes who would like to unseat him.

“One of the things that I mentioned to him was that I thought it was extremely important that, when there were concerns, that we try to resolve those concerns in private, and not publicly,” said Panetta, who took over as defense secretary on July 1 after serving as CIA director.

Panetta said he made clear that if they had differences “I would deal with him privately, not publicly.”

“And he gave me his word that he would do the same thing with me,” Panetta said.

In one recent fiery speech Karzai warned that foreign soldiers risked being seen as occupiers because of civilian casualties they caused. He recently said the West was polluting the country with weapons containing toxic chemicals.

Karzai has also criticized night raids by the U.S. military that he said incited people to join the Taliban insurgency.

The acrimony has been on both sides, however.

In secret diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry questioned Karzai’s abilities as a leader, called him insecure, and faulted him for a “‘blame America’ tactic he uses to deflect criticism of his administration.”

Publicly, Eikenberry has been more careful. Still, last month he complained in surprisingly blunt terms about “hurtful and inappropriate” comments from Afghanistan’s political leaders -- a clear reference to Karzai.

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Asked why he believed the United States should have confidence in Karzai, Panetta said: “He’s the elected president of Afghanistan. And I think we have a responsibility to deal with him as the leader of this country.”

“We deal with a lot of leaders throughout the world who have problems and have difficulties and have issues that we don’t necessarily agree with. But nevertheless we have to deal with them. And I think that’s the case here.”

Relations also suffered when Richard Holbrooke, the late U.S. regional envoy, clashed with Karzai over allegations of fraud during presidential polls in 2009.

Holbrooke, who died suddenly last year, was replaced by the lower-key Ambassador Marc Grossman.

Panetta told reporters during the flight to Afghanistan that the fact a new team of U.S. officials were moving into Afghanistan -- including a new U.S. envoy to replace Eikenberry -- could help improve ties.

“Hopefully it can be the beginning of a much better relationship than what we’ve had (with Karzai) over the past few years,” Panetta said.

Panetta’s trip to Afghanistan comes in the wake of President Barack Obama’s June announcement of a faster-than-expected withdrawal, pulling 10,000 troops this year and another 23,000 by the end of next summer. More will leave after that.

Still, even at the end of next summer, the United States will still have some 70,000 troops in Afghanistan.

In what was his first gaffe as defense secretary, Panetta said “we’re going to have 70,000 there through 2014” -- a far heavier presence than expected at the date U.S. forces are meant to hand over security lead to Afghans.

But his aides quickly corrected the record, saying that more forces would gradually pull out even after 2012 -- as officials have previously stated.

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