NEW YORK // Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama will be under close scrutiny during a highly publicised meeting in Washington today for signs the Afghan and US presidents have overcome serious policy rifts and mended their frayed relationship. Mr Karzai, who began a four-day trip to the United States with 10 of his cabinet ministers on Monday, has also been the focus of disagreement among senior US administration officials about his abilities and legitimacy, but they presented a united front in welcoming the Afghan leader.
Civilian casualties, corruption, security, reconciliation with militants and the longer-term US-Afghan relationship after the United States starts to withdraw forces next year were all on the agenda this week. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, stressed yesterday the United States's continuing humanitarian objective after the international combat mission in the country winds down next year. "Let me be clear. As we look toward a responsible, orderly transition in the international combat mission in Afghanistan, we will not abandon the Afghan people.
"Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future," she said. Before the visit, several US officials stayed on-message in speaking about their "respect" for Mr Karzai, who had infuriated the Obama administration after he blamed the West for tainted elections last year and for fostering corruption in Afghanistan. His decision to host Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, in Kabul in March was a further blow to the US administration.
Richard Holbrooke, Mr Obama's envoy to the region, told journalists via videoconference after greeting Mr Karzai on his arrival in Washington on Monday: "There was a period when the waters became roiled, but I will say categorically that period has ended." Mr Holbrooke's ties with Mr Karzai were widely reported to be rocky, but he said recent upsets were "not worth revisiting" and that relations were "cordial, respectful and friendly".
Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan and author of leaked memos last year that were highly critical of Mr Karzai's leadership, said at a White House press conference on Monday: "He's the elected president of Afghanistan. Of course I highly respect President Karzai." The US-led war in Afghanistan faces several difficult challenges, but Washington hopes well-planned "atmospherics" during the visit will lead to better personal chemistry between the two presidents. Mr Karzai was being given a full red-carpet welcome including official dinners, an honour guard at the Pentagon and a press conference with Mr Obama at the White House today.
But the Afghan leader was also expected to face tough questioning from congressional leaders, who have delayed action on the administration's request for more aid because of corruption concerns. Mr Holbrooke said only nine per cent of US aid was administered by the Afghan government when Mr Obama was inaugurated as president last year. The figure was now 14 per cent and he did not know when the target of 50 per cent would be reached because of the difficulty of meeting congressional requirements, such as certifying Afghan ministries.
"Our job is to strengthen the government by funnelling as much assistance as possible through the government," he said. Another disagreement to be ironed out is over peace negotiations with the Taliban. Mr Karzai wants full international backing to talk with senior Taliban leaders, but it was unclear how far Washington would support him. Mr Holbrooke reiterated some of the key demands of militants that the US has made clear so far - respect for the Afghan constitution and women's rights, laying down of arms and cutting all ties with al Qa'eda.
Gen Stanley McChrystal, the overall US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, who has close relations with Mr Karzai, told reporters on Monday: "Historically, I think the most important thing is that we first get an Afghan solution, crafted by Afghans, and second, that it be inclusive and it feels fair to everyone." US-led forces are widening their offensive against the Taliban from Helmand to Kandahar province, also in southern Afghanistan. But many Afghans fear they will be abandoned again by the United States next year as they were after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989-1990.
Waheed Omer, a spokesman for Mr Karzai, said there would be "frank" exchanges during the visit. "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," he said at a briefing in Washington. The Taliban have dismissed Mr Karzai's overtures so far but the Afghan president hopes to make progress at a national peace assembly or jirga planned from May 29.
While Mr Karzai remains deeply unpopular across much of Afghanistan, Washington appears to have concluded that there is no one else to deal with. Meanwhile, polls show little support for the war among Americans, a factor weighing on Mr Obama's Democratic Party as it faces midterm elections this November. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org