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Obama, Karzai Discuss Tensions, Affirm Partnership

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After talks at the White House on Wednesday, President Barack Obama and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai said they are committed to a long-term strategic partnership.

Listen to Ira Mellman's interview with Nazif Sharani, a professor of Central Asian and Middle East Studies at Indiana University:

This week's visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a large group of Cabinet ministers has been aimed at trying to move beyond policy and strategy differences that could weaken joint counter-terrorism efforts.

Referring to what he called "perceived" tensions, President Barack Obama said some of these tensions were over-stated, adding that both sides are committed to the goal of a secure and stable Afghanistan.

"There are going to be setbacks; there are going to be times where our governments disagree on a particular tactic," he said. "But what I am very confident about is that we share a broad strategy, one that I hope we can memorialize in a declaration by the end of this year."

Although there was no direct mention of corruption in Afghanistan - a key concern of the United States and allies - President Karzai recognized what he called "issues of concern and shortcomings" in his country.  Talks with President Obama, he said, resulted in strengthening a relationship that has endured.

"The bottom line is that we are much more strongly related to each other today than we ever were before in this relationship," said the Afghan president. "And that is a good message that I will take back to the Afghan people the day after tomorrow."

Reporters posed questions to the two leaders about the role of Pakistan, and the link between Pakistan-based Taliban and other groups and instability in Afghanistan.

President Obama said he is encouraged by what he has seen in terms cooperation from Pakistan's government, but
"It is going to take some time for Pakistan, even where there is a will, to find a way in order to effectively deal with these extremists in areas that are fairly loosely governed from Islamabad," he added.

The Mr. Obama said the security of Afghanistan and Pakistan are interrelated, adding that Afghanistan's sovereignty, territorial integrity, Constitution and people must be respected by its neighbors.

Civilian casualties

On the sensitive issue of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, both leaders said this was discussed at length, with President Karzai pointing to "considerable progress."   

Saying that an overwhelming majority of civilian casualties are a consequence of terrorist acts by the Taliban, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to reducing such incidents.

"We have an interest in reducing civilian casualties, not because it is a problem for President Karzai, [but because] we have an interest in reducing civilian casualties because I do not want civilians killed," he said.

President Obama said he remains confident that the United States will be able to begin drawing down its armed forces in Afghanistan in July of next year.  But he emphasized that the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan will not be finished.

Saying that the capabilities of Afghanistan's army and police are "progressing steadily," President Karzai offered this prediction of how much territory Afghan forces will be able to secure.

"We plan to be conducting, providing security for our country in major parts of the country where we have the ability within the next two years," he said. "By the time my term of office completes in four years, four-and-a-half years from today, Afghanistan [will be] working hard to provide security for the whole of the country."

Reintegration of Taliban

On the question of steps underway to reintegrate Taliban, President Karzai pointed to what he called thousands of Taliban who he described as not being part of al-Qaida or other terrorist networks and who wish to return, if given the opportunity and political means.

President Obama said the United States supports efforts to open the door to Taliban who cut ties with al-Qaida, abandon violence and accept the Afghan Constitution, including respect for human rights.

At the same time, President Obama predicted there will be "hard fighting" during the next several months as U.S. forces begin a new push into Taliban areas.  But he said Afghan forces are becoming more battle ready and toughened, so they can take the lead in security operations.

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