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Obama and Hamid Karzai agree to differ on Afghanistan war

Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai acknowledged Wednesday that the problems of the Afghanistan war are deep-seated and that the US and Afghanistan might not always agree on the best way forward. But they reaffirmed the strength of the alliance.

President Obama (l.) and Afghan President Hamid Karzai shake hands following their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington Wednesday, where they discussed a range of issues from civilian casualties in the Afghanistan war to reconciliation with some members of the Taliban.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai attempted to debunk suggestions of a festering rift between the two men and nations at a White House press conference Wednesday.

Though the two made overtures to the other's primary concerns – Mr. Obama emphasizing Afghan sovereignty and Mr. Karzai paying tribute to American sacrifice in the Afghanistan war – they sought to underline the countries' “broad and deepening” relationship by not shying away from controversial issues.

Afghan corruption and Karzai’s plans to reintegrate thousands of Taliban fighters are the kinds of tough questions that partners often spar over before resolving, they said. They further drove home that point with the release of a three-page joint statement that confronted these underlying tensions.

For example, the statement offers support to Karzai’s Taliban reconciliation program, but also underscores the US view that such efforts cannot come at any cost. Moreover, the statement hints at a disagreements about Karzai's plans for an upcoming consultative peace conference – or jirga – that could begin the process of engaging insurgency leaders.

After months of sniping and discontent between Washington and Kabul, however, Wednesday was overtly about reassurance. Obama reassured his Afghan counterpart that the US commitment to his country will continue after the surge of US troops begins withdrawing in July 2011. And Karzai thanked Obama and the American people for the “significant resources” he said have contributed to a strengthening Afghanistan and to American security.

The robed and capped Afghan leader referred emotionally to a young soldier he visited Tuesday in Walter Reed Army Hospital who had lost his arms and legs while fighting in Afghanistan. He then pointedly called exclusively on women journalists, as if to acknowledge US concerns over women’s rights in his country.

Making Afghanistan's concerns known

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But Karzai also highlighted issues of special importance to him and his country, saying he and Obama “discussed in a frank and productive manner” both the issue of civilian casualties and “judicial independence” – code for his concerns over a US focus on government corruption.

The three-page joint statement appeared to seek common ground on several key issues, including reconciliation and reintegration of the Taliban .

“The United States pledged its support for Afghanistan’s reintegration and reconciliation processes,” the statement reads, “which allow an honorable place in society to those who cut ties with Al Qaeda, cease violence against the Afghan state, and accept the Afghan constitution, including its protections of human rights and women’s equality.”

The concern among American officials is that Karzai will attempt to reconcile not just with low-level fighters but also with hardline Taliban leaders.

“The [US] military is on-board with reaching out to the so-called $10-a-day Taliban, but it’s when he [Karzai] starts talking about more substantive discussions with upper leadership that you start to see the disagreements over strategy,” says Jason Campbell, an Afghanistan expert at the Rand Corp. in Arlington, Va.

But at Wednesday’s press conference, Karzai said that in addition to “thousands of country boys,” any reconciliation and reintegration plan should be open to Taliban leadership “who are not within Al Qaeda leadership” and who are “not against democracy or women’s place in Afghan society.”

Questions over timing of the jirga

The joint statement suggests the two countries are on the same page concerning Karzai's upcoming jirga. But Mr. Campbell says bland wording in the statement may be masking differences of opinion over the timing of the conference.

The conference was already postponed once to allow for Karzai’s trip to Washington, and a new date of May 29 has been mentioned. But Wednesday’s joint statement makes no reference to a specific date.

“My guess is that failing to give a date wasn’t just an oversight,” says Campbell. “The US would prefer to be on much more sound footing from a military standpoint before green-lighting such discussions, while Karzai is more intent on seeing what he can get now.”

The US-Afghan relationship should be on surer footing after Karzai’s visit, says Campbell. But the question is how long that will last, he says: “If all this new understanding is tentative and vulnerable to blows, we could be in a situation where another civilian fatality event caused by NATO forces puts us right back where we were a few weeks ago.”

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