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Karzai, Holbrooke Meet Amid Strained Ties

Holbrooke's Afghan visit follows a similar fact-finding stop in Pakistan, and will end in India.
KABUL (Reuters) -- U.S. President Barack Obama's envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan has met with Hamid Karzai, the first direct contact between the Afghan president and the new administration that has distanced itself from him.

Once a darling of the Bush administration, Karzai has appeared to be out of favor with Obama's team. Obama last week described Karzai's government as "very detached" from its people, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called Afghanistan a "narcostate."

Obama's special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, met Afghan ministers, officials, parliamentarians, and foreign diplomats on February 13 in a fact-finding mission that began in Pakistan and will end in India. Holbrooke has said little publicly the whole trip.

Karzai said on February 13 that he had not spoken to Obama since he took office more than three weeks ago. Holbrooke is the first representative of the new administration to visit Afghanistan since then.

Asked whether there was a crisis between the United States and his government, Karzai told Al-Jazeera: "Yes, yes. There is."

As the Taliban insurgency steadily grows in Afghanistan more than seven years after U.S.-led forces toppled the hard-line Islamist government, so relations between Washington and Kabul have become increasingly strained.

Washington and its allies have repeatedly spoken of the need for good governance, meaning the lack of effective rule outside Kabul and Karzai's failure to tackle rampant corruption undermine the efforts of Western troops battling to bring security.

Karzai, perhaps with one eye on elections this year, has hit back at his Western backers, complaining time and again about the killing of Afghan civilians in mistaken air strikes.

"There is tension between us and the U.S. government on issues of civilian casualties, arrests of Afghans, nightly raids on homes and the casualties they cause," Karzai told Al-Jazeera. "Afghan children were dying in the bombardments."

More than 2,100 civilians were killed in fighting in Afghanistan last year, including around 700 by international and Afghan forces, mostly in air strikes, the United Nations said.

The Afghan Defense Ministry and U.S. forces agreed to include more Afghan representatives in the planning and execution of counterterrorism missions, Karzai's office said on February 14, a measure intended to reduce civilian casualties.

Obama is expected to decide in the next few days on whether to send up to 25,000 troops to add to the 37,000 U.S. soldiers and a similar number of troops from 40 other nations already struggling to quell the Taliban insurgency inside Afghanistan.