x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Obama and Karzai downplay tensions

Afghan leader and Washington remain at loggerheads over Iran and talks with Taliban as US president pledges continuing support.

NEW YORK // President Barack Obama reaffirmed a strong US commitment to Afghanistan yesterday and sought to start a new chapter in relations with Kabul, presenting a united front with Hamid Karzai, his Afghan counterpart, at a joint White House press conference, an event usually reserved for strong Washington allies.

Mr Obama acknowledged "setbacks" in the US relationship with Mr Karzai, who said they had spoken "frankly" with each other and both leaders downplayed recent reports of frayed relations. The US president expressed confidence his country would be able to start withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan by his deadline of July 2011 but that assistance would continue long after this date. "We are steadily making progress," he said of US-led forces, which he claimed were beginning to "reverse the Taliban's momentum".

The US president also said he was "ultimately accountable" for civilian casualties in the nearly nine-year war, an issue of great concern to Kabul and a source of great anger among Afghans. Mr Obama said civilian deaths were "something that I have to carry with me". "After all, it's the Afghan people we are working to protect form the Taliban," said Mr Obama while also pointing out that the insurgency killed far more civilians than foreign forces or Afghan security servicemen.

Mr Karzai began his four-day trip to Washington on Monday with most of his cabinet but notably absent was his brother, Ahmed Wali Kazai, a key power-broker in the southern province of Kandahar and whom the president has used to make peace overtures to the Taliban. US administration officials appeared to have stopped their public criticism of Mr Karzai over corruption allegations but were expected to keep up the pressure in private. Public expressions of disagreement appeared to backfire after Mr Karzai issued several angry tirades in recent months, accusing Washington of failing to support him and even reportedly threatening to join the Taliban, which the US ousted in 2001 but is resurgent in large swathes of Afghanistan.

Mr Karzai said tensions with Washington were a reflection of a deep and strong relationship. "We are much more strongly related to each today than we ever were before," he said. Eventual peace talks with the Taliban remains a point of disagreement between Kabul and Washington. Mr Obama said he looked forward to more discussion about how Mr Karzai's government would reach out to militants as it prepares to convene a council of elders (jirga) that will meet in Kabul from May 29.

Although both men said they agreed there was no single military solution to achieving peace in Afghanistan, Mr Obama stressed that military operations, like a forthcoming push in Kandahar, would break the Taliban's "momentum" and prove conducive to peace. "Obviously there are going to be tensions in such a complicated and difficult environment and in a situation in which, on the ground, both Afghans and Americans are making enormous sacrifices," Mr Obama said.

The US president said there is a growing recognition in Pakistan of the threat posed by extremist groups operating on its border with Afghanistan and what he called a "cancer in their midst". He said Islamabad had started to assert control and to fight the militants but acknowledged that "it's not going to happen overnight". Meanwhile, he said US and Afghan officials were emphasising to Pakistan that the security of all three countries was "intertwined".

On Iran, Mr Karzai said Washington understood that Kabul wanted to maintain good relations with all its neighbours and it was in this spirit that he hosted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, in Kabul earlier this year. He reaffirmed that Iran was a "neighbour and a brother" and that he had made it clear to all of Afghanistan's neighbours that the US was the "greatest contributor to stability and reconstruction". Referring to tense US-Iran ties, he drew laughter from the room when he said: "If there's anything we can do, call us."

It was unclear how far Mr Karzai's trip would go in assuaging negative public opinion in both Afghanistan and the United States over the war. In the US, opinion polls show only a minority supports the war, aimed at definitely ousting the Taliban and preventing groups such as al Qa'eda from again gaining a foothold. With battlefield success far from certain, more Americans are questioning whether full peace is achievable.

Maureen Dowd, writing in The New York Times, said: "The administration is trying to delay the inconvenient truth that Karzai wants reconciliation with Taliban leaders; this makes the US cringe, thinking of Mullah Omar and other 9/11 killers," referring to the Afghan Taliban leader who sheltered al Qa'eda before the attacks of September 11, 2001. @Email:sdevi@thenational.ae