WASHINGTON — President Obama and his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, appeared side by side yesterday in a stiff, choreographed effort to demonstrate they have set aside differences over how to prosecute the war in Afghanistan.
Both acknowledged the war is likely to worsen in the months ahead as U.S. troops push into insurgent strongholds.
But the events at the White House, starting in the Oval Office and concluding with a private moment between the presidents after lunch in the Cabinet Room, were as much about shoring up the symbolism of a sometimes-troubled partnership as they were about the substance of how to fight the war.
Although there were few flourishes of warmth between the men, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai appear to have gotten what they sought from the Afghan president's extended visit — a chance to clear the air after weeks of recriminations and public acknowledgments, delivered by each leader in unusually personal terms, of the political difficulties the other faces in maintaining support for the war at home.
Mr. Obama talked about his moral stake in protecting Afghan civilians, and Mr. Karzai reflected on his visit with a badly wounded American soldier at Walter Reed Army Medical Center the previous day.
“We are in a campaign against terrorism together,” Mr. Karzai said at a White House news conference. “And definitely days have come in which we have had differences of opinion, and definitely days in the future will come in which we have differences of opinion. But the relationship between the two governments and the two nations is strong and well-rooted.”
On substance, Mr. Obama told reporters he believes the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is proceeding on schedule, reaffirming his intention to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from the country in July, 2011. He also endorsed Mr. Karzai's plan to begin peeling off disaffected Taliban fighters in a peace conference later this month, saying that an Afghan-led “political component” is essential to the overall strategy.
Mr. Karzai, who in a recent fit of pique with the United States threatened to join the Taliban, came to Washington in part to secure Mr. Obama's blessing for his “reintegration” plan, though a longer-term approach for dealing with Taliban leaders remains unclear. Addressing U.S. concerns over who would qualify for amnesty, Mr. Karzai said he is focusing on the “thousands” of insurgents who are not fighting for ideological reasons or against U.S. long-term interests.
The visit comes ahead of an intensive several months of political and military initiatives in Afghanistan that U.S. officials say could determine the success of Mr. Obama's surge strategy.
Later this month, Mr. Karzai plans to convene the first peace conference to draw out casually committed Taliban foot soldiers, followed in the summer by the Kabul Conference, which will bring together countries that provide military and financial support to the Afghanistan war effort.
At the same time, the U.S. military will begin its push into Kandahar, the heart of Taliban control. The success of such military operations, Mr. Obama said, would make it far easier for Mr. Karzai to negotiate from a position of strength with Taliban fighters.
“We think these are several extremely important months,” said a senior administration official involved in Afghanistan policy, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking on the issue. “This meeting was a way to make sure we're coordinated and on the same page as this period gets going.”
Rehabilitating the partnership with Mr. Karzai is also important politically for Mr. Obama, who went against many in his own party in deciding to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan last fall. About half of them have arrived, with the rest scheduled to land by the end of the summer, bringing the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to about 100,000.
The military operations are designed to clear Taliban strongholds, making way for the Afghan government to take control. But Mr. Obama's senior advisers have disagreed sharply over whether Mr. Karzai is a reliable and effective partner in the U.S.-led war effort.
Before this week's visit, Mr. Obama warned his team that a unified message of support for the prideful Afghan president was essential to the relationship. Yesterday, he said that “our job is to be a good friend and to be frank with President Karzai in saying here's where we think we've got to put more effort.”
While embracing Mr. Karzai publicly, the administration is also working to build relationships with other members of the Afghan government. To that end, members of Mr. Karzai's cabinet were invited to join him on the visit, a strategy aimed at making Mr. Karzai less central, according to Obama Administration officials.
The day began with a meeting that included Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and four other senior advisers.
Senior administration officials described the meeting as a constructive appraisal of security operations and government reforms, as well as a discussion of the U.S.-Afghan relationship after July 2011. It also touched on issues particularly important to Mr. Karzai's immediate domestic political standing, including a U.S. pledge to turn over control of detention operations to the Afghan government and the administration's concern over Afghan civilian casualties.