US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai met at the White House on Wednesday in a show of unity aimed at patching over differences at a pivotal time in the nearly nine-year-old war.
Backing away from a publicly tough approach to Karzai widely believed to have backfired, the Obama administration was giving the Afghan leader the red-carpet treatment on a four-day visit seen as crucial to shoring up the U.S.-led war effort.
The White House talks were meant not only to reassure the Afghan leader of a long-term US commitment to his government but also to persuade a skeptical American public and Congress that the war is worth fighting and funding.
Washington had criticized Karzai openly in recent months for tolerating government corruption and the Afghan leader lashed back with a series of anti-Western diatribes.
While US concerns about corruption have not faded and questions remain whether Karzai can be a reliable partner, the Obama administration is now making a concerted effort to handle such matters in private and treat the Afghan president with more respect in public.
US officials, mindful that alienating Karzai would risk the support they need from Afghans to make the US war strategy work, choreographed the optics of his visit to help restore trust and boost Karzai's stature.
Flanked by Marine guards, Karzai stepped out of a black limousine and into the White House where he was to spend several hours with Obama and appear at a joint news conference, an honor usually reserved for the most important U.S. allies.
Karzai's visit comes as the US military gears up to complete a troop buildup in Afghanistan in a bid to beat back a resurgent Taliban, stabilize the country and then fulfill Obama's pledge to start bringing troops home in July 2011.
Trying to ease afghan worries
Seeking to ease Karzai's worries about the withdrawal timetable, Obama will reinforce his aides' promise that US support will endure long after US forces start pulling out.
"As we look toward a responsible, orderly transition in the international combat mission in Afghanistan, we will not abandon the Afghan people," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Karzai on Tuesday.
But many Afghans are bound to have doubts, recalling how the United States turned its back on them following the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan in 1989.
Obama, meanwhile, will be looking for reassurance from Karzai that an emerging effort toward reconciliation with the Taliban will be done in consultation with Washington.
The US administration remains wary of overtures to the former Taliban rulers, who were toppled in a US-led invasion after harboring the al Qaeda leadership responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
Obama's challenge will be to forge a closer personal bond with Karzai after breaking with the chummier style of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and keeping him at arms' length.
The contrast was on display last May when Karzai had to share the White House spotlight with his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, and again in March when Obama paid a brief, subdued visit to Kabul to lecture Karzai on corruption.
After seeing the public pressure campaign make Karzai even more resistant to reform, US officials prepared a warmer reception on his second visit to the Obama White House.
Despite the diplomatic niceties, Obama's aides said he would make clear to Karzai behind closed doors that more needs to be done to tackle corruption.
Karzai's recent outbursts were seen as calculated in part to show the Afghan public he is no US puppet. He is expected to press Obama on civilian casualties which have undermined public trust in foreign forces in Afghanistan.
Obama will also be playing to a war-weary domestic audience and lawmakers looking for assurances from Karzai before granting further funding for the Afghan campaign. The Democratic president wants to keep Afghanistan from becoming another drag on his party in November congressional elections.