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Hamid Karzai comes to Washington: Will US-Afghanistan tensions ease?

Mutual suspicions are expected to be set aside as Afghan President Hamid Karzai visits Washington this week. Both countries seek a stronger partnership that will help Afghanistan resist the Taliban.

By Staff writer / May 10, 2010

President Obama meets with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 28. Obama and Karzai are looking for progress as Karzai visits Washington this week.

Pete Souza/The White House/Newscom

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Washington

Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrives in Washington Monday for a four-day visit that both the US and Afghanistan are determined to see put their countries’ partnership on a more productive – and less cantankerous – path.

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Mutual suspicions have marked the relationship between Mr. Karzai and President Obama – at least since the Afghan leader’s trouble-pocked reelection last year. Obama has fumed over an unaccountable leader who has done little to stem rampant corruption, while Karzai has blasted an arrogant foreign presence in his country, going so far as to recently charge the US with seeking a “servant government” from the Afghans.

But both sides say a common interest in a stronger Afghanistan that uses the US and NATO “partnership” to improve governance and wrest terrain from the Afghan Taliban will trump quarrels that at least publicly will be laid to rest.

“The nature of strategic partnerships like the one between the United States and Afghanistan [is that] they feature ups and downs,” says Douglas Lute, Obama’s special assistant for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “But the difference between a mere relationship and a partnership like the one [with Afghanistan] is that partnerships endure the ups and downs and continue to press forward towards the common goals on which the partnership is founded.”

Both leaders have made concessions to the other side in the run-up to this visit.

Obama has ordered a shift from criticism to praise of Karzai and the Afghan government. In particular, he has urged a toning-down of nepotism and corruption charges that zeroed in on Karzai family members, most notably a brother in government in Kandahar. Karzai postponed a national peace conference, or consultative jirga, until after his Washington visit after US officials expressed concern that Karzai would go too far in accommodating the Taliban.

Both leaders will be looking for assurances from the other: Obama, that Karzai has a plan for following up on NATO efforts by extending security and governance into areas won away from Taliban control; and Karzai, that the US will not just pack up and leave once Obama’s plan to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011 kicks in.

Karzai’s day at the White House is Wednesday, during which the two leaders will hold a Rose Garden press conference and a working lunch bringing together their respective national security teams. The Afghan leader meets with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other State Department officials on Tuesday, while Secretary Clinton and Karzai engage in a “public conversation” Thursday.

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