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Obama, Karzai to hold fence-mending talks

President Barack Obama will host Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House on Wednesday for a show of wartime unity to turn the page on months of strained relations.

world Updated: May 12, 2010 11:07 IST

President Barack Obama will host Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House on Wednesday for a show of wartime unity to turn the page on months of strained relations.

Karzai's red-carpet treatment will seal the Obama administration's abandonment of a publicly tough approach to the Afghan leader, widely believed to have backfired and made Karzai more resistant to US pressure.

Talks with Obama, the centrepiece of Karzai's four-day visit, follow meetings with other top US officials to patch over differences at a pivotal time in the nearly nine-year-old war in Afghanistan.

Washington 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 vanished, Obama's administration is now making a concerted effort to handle such matters in private and treat Karzai with more respect in public. Washington is mindful that alienating Karzai would risk the support they need from Afghans to make the US war strategy work.

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.

Seeking to ease Karzai's worries about the withdrawal timetable, Obama will reinforce his aides' promise of a long-term US commitment to Afghanistan.

"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 be skeptical, recalling how the United States turned its back on them following the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan in 1989.

US wary of taliban reconciliation

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 to avoid compromising the war effort.

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 September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.

As he seeks to rebuild trust with Karzai, Obama's challenge will be to forge a closer personal relationship. He broke with the chummier style of his predecessor, George W Bush, and opted for an arms-length approach.

The contrast was on full 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.

Karzai's second visit to the Obama White House is expected to be a markedly different story.

Obama will host Karzai for much of the day, including a joint news conference at the White House, an honor reserved for the most trusted US allies.

While there will be public handshakes and smiles, Obama's aides said he would make clear to Karzai behind closed doors that more needs to be done to tackle corruption. Anticipating the pressure, Karzai said on Tuesday his government would do its part to "build its institutions."

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 domestic audience, a public weary of what was supposed to be a "good war" compared to the more unpopular conflict in Iraq.

The Democratic president wants to keep Afghanistan from becoming another drag on his party in pivotal congressional elections in November. Voter anxiety over high unemployment and a fragile economy is already expected to take a toll.