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US Officials Preview Obama-Karzai Talks

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  • Ira Mellman's interview with Teresita Schaffer, director of South Asia Programs, CSIS

The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan on Monday previewed this week's talks at the White House between President Barack Obama and visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  The United States continues to press Mr. Karzai for progress on eliminating corruption and spreading good governance, and that talks scheduled for Wednesday follow a period of tension between the Obama administration and the government in Kabul.

Following President Obama's visit to Afghanistan in March, and for weeks after, whether President Karzai would visit the White House was an open question as the Obama administration reacted to remarks the Afghan leader made that were critical of Western policy.

Although Mr. Karzai sought to repair the damage, discussions he will hold with President Obama, along with consultations with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and meetings Afghan cabinet members accompanying him have, will attempt to set relations on a more positive track.

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry spoke at a White House press briefing on Monday.

"There will be serious dialogues in the days ahead on far-ranging issues, including how to best deliver on our government's commitment to help accelerate the strengthening of Afghan security and judicial institutions," said Ambassador Eikenberry.

Among major issues to be discussed during Mr. Karzai's four day visit are questions surrounding the reconciliation with and reintegration of the Taliban, and ongoing U.S. and NATO efforts to build a capable Afghan army and police force.

Under a schedule established by President Obama, U.S. forces are to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July of next year.  But U.S. officials stress that there are no deadlines for a final pull out, and that the process will be driven by assessments of events on the ground.

Saying that much work lies ahead, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army General McChrystal, called the development of Afghanistan's army and police a strategic priority.  Referring to ongoing joint operations to secure the southern part of the country, especially the city of Kandahar, he said the road ahead will not be easy.

"This is a process that takes time," said General McChrystal. "It will demand courage and resilience.  We will encounter increased violence as our combined security forces expand into Taliban-controlled areas.  Increasingly the momentum will shift to the Afghan forces.  Over time, security responsibilities will transition to Afghans."

Asked whether he was less skeptical now about the situation in Afghanistan based on action President Karzai has taken or promises he has kept, Ambassador Eikenberry used the term "cautious optimism" to describe the progress being made in several areas.

Eikenberry sidestepped a question about whether his concerns regarding President Karzai have been allayed.

"President Karzai is the elected president of Afghanistan," he said. "Afghanistan is a close friend and ally.   And, of course, I highly respect President Karzai in that capacity."

Amid a series of questions about President Obama's assessment of the Afghan cooperation, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs cited a "partnership" with the Karzai government.

"There are steps that we have to take both on security and the civilian side," said Robert Gibbs. "We will laud the steps that they take and the steps that need to be taken in order to improve, either on the security side or on the government side.  We will work with them to make sure they happen."

On Tuesday, President Karzai is scheduled to hold a series of meetings at the State Department and deliver joint remarks with Secretary of State Clinton.

President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are set to meet with Mr. Karzai on Wednesday, and the two presidents are expected to hold a joint news conference.  President Karzai and other delegation officials will meet with members of Congress.

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