WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai put on a show of unity today and declared that their recent disagreements have not affected their shared goal of routing Al-Qaeda and bringing Afghanistan into a peaceful and stable future.
Speaking alongside Karzai at a joint press conference at the White House after morning-long talks, Obama said tensions were to be expected "in such a complicated and difficult environment and... in a situation [where] both Afghans and Americans are making enormous sacrifices."
But he said the media had exaggerated the two leaders' differences, which were sparked last month by anti-Western comments Karzai made about foreign interference in his government:
"With respect to perceived tensions between the U.S. government and the Afghan government, let me begin by saying a lot of them were simply overstated," Obama said.
Karzai acknowledged that the two men have had "a difference of opinion" at times and that more disagreements likely lay ahead, but he said the relationship between America and Afghanistan is "strong and well rooted," adding, "The bottom line is that we are much more strongly related to each other today than we ever were before in this relationship. And that is a good message that I will take back to the Afghan people the day after tomorrow."
Wide Ranging Talks
Karzai's White House meeting comes on the third day of a four-day visit to Washington that has seen his large delegation of cabinet ministers and Afghan government officials holding talks with their U.S. counterparts in several areas, including education, energy, agriculture, and defense.
The Afghan leader spent May 11 at the State Department with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who pledged that the United States "would not abandon Afghanistan."
The meeting of the two presidents was meant to be a progress review and a public reaffirmation of the United States' commitment to Afghanistan, which in recent months has fallen out of favor with the public and been scrutinized by Congress.
Obama said their talk had been an opportunity to "review the progress of our shared strategy and objectives" and said the two leaders had discussed one of Karzai's top concerns -- the level of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, which is seen as a major impediment to persuading the Afghan people to reject the Taliban and side with the government.
"We've taken extraordinary measures to avoid civilian casualties. And I reiterated in my meeting with President Karzai that the United States will continue to work with our Afghan and international partners to do everything in our power to avoid actions that harm the Afghan people," Obama said.
"After all, it's the Afghan people we are working to protect from the Taliban, which is responsible for the vast majority of innocent civilian deaths," he added.
Obama said he bears ultimate accountability for civilian casualties on the battlefield. "We have an interest in reducing civilian casualties not because it's a problem for President Karzai. We have an interest in reducing civilian casualties because I don't want civilians killed."
Karzai seemed satisfied with what he described as the "frank" and "productive" discussion and said he was "very happy" to be able to go back to his country and tell people that he had found "a very supportive voice" from Obama.
Washington's desire to see more progress against widespread corruption in the Afghan government was also on the meeting agenda, but in keeping with a new White House strategy of showing Karzai more public respect, any message on that count was delivered in private, not at the public press conference. Obama only said that "progress that has been made" and Karzai and he "both acknowledge that much more work needs to be done."
On security, Obama said gains have been made. As international forces prepare to launch this year's second major military offensive, he said the tide is turning against the insurgency.
Afghan and coalition forces have "begun to reverse the momentum of the insurgency. We have taken the fight to the Taliban in Helmand province, pushed them out of their stronghold in Marjah, and are working to give Afghans the opportunity to reclaim their communities," Obama said.
In less than two weeks, Karzai's government will host a consultative peace jirga, or gathering, in Kabul that will see the first steps taken toward a plan to reintegrate Taliban 'foot soldiers' into mainstream society and possible government reconciliation with the group's commanders.
Karzai said that "there are thousands of the Taliban who are not ideologically oriented, who are not part of Al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks, or controlled from outside in any manner troublesome to us." He described these low-level fighters as "country boys who have been driven by intimidation or fear, caused by, at times, misconduct by us, or circumstances beyond their control or our control."
Washington has been clear that it has concerns over what conditions will govern the peace process, and today Obama said he "appreciated the president sharing his plans for the upcoming Consultative Peace Jirga, an important milestone that America supports."
He said the United States "supports the efforts of the Afghan government to open the door to Taliban who cut their ties to Al-Qaeda, abandon violence and accept the Afghan constitution, including respect for human rights."
In a question-and-answer session with reporters following the leaders' statements, Karzai was asked about his recent embrace of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who visited Kabul in March and later hosted Karzai in Tehran.
Karzai said he has been clear with Washington about his relationship with the country that is currently defying U.S.-led international efforts to halt its nuclear enrichment program:
"We have also spoken with our American counterparts, from the very beginning, that Iran is our neighbor, and a brother, and we want to have the best of relations with them," he said. "They have had contributions to Afghanistan's reconstruction. We wish that Afghanistan remains friendly to both, and is not a place where we are seen as a playground by our neighbors, in any way."
Saying he wishes "the best" for both America and Iran, he added,"If there's anything we can do to make things better, call us."