WASHINGTON -- The United States has reaffirmed its commitment to helping Afghanistan achieve peace and stability at the start of three days of intensive meetings between an Afghan delegation led by President Hamid Karzai and top Obama administration officials.
Speaking at the opening of U.S.-Afghanistan bilateral discussions at the State Department on May 11, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referenced the recent rocky patch in relations between Washington and Kabul by saying that disagreements will not be "an obstacle to achieving our shared objectives."
"This partnership is a long-term commitment by the American people to the Afghan people," Clinton said. "Our nations will work together and with the international community to build a stable and prosperous Afghanistan that is a force for peace, progress, and prosperity for its own people and its region, a bulwark against Al-Qaeda and other violent extremists, rather than a haven for them."
Karzai brought with him to Washington a sizable delegation that includes his chiefs of defense, diplomatic, military, and intelligence, among other cabinet ministers, as well as assorted other high-level officials.
Over the next few days, broad-ranging discussions will take place between the Afghan officials and their U.S. counterparts on topics ranging from education to agriculture, energy to employment.
The visit follows weeks of animosity between the two governments, sparked by anti-Western comments Karzai made about foreign interference in his government and the United Nations' role in last summer's contested presidential election, which he won.
But all that seemed a distant memory at the opening session of the daylong talks on May 11. Clinton said the United States had a long-term commitment to Afghanistan and would continue to participate in its development long after next summer's planned U.S. troop withdrawal.
"As we look toward a responsible orderly transition in the international combat mission in Afghanistan, we will not abandon the Afghan people," Clinton said. "Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future."'Friendly Disagreement'
There is some worry among ordinary Afghans that the departure of U.S. troops will leave unfinished business in the country and cause progress to backslide. Clinton offered assurances by saying that "President Obama has made clear that [the U.S.] will not allow that kind of detachment" to happen.
As for Karzai, his demeanor appeared to be a million miles away from how Washington saw him only a few weeks ago, when he reportedly threatened to join the Taliban if countries like the United States didn't stop meddling in his government's affairs.
He sounded gracious and grateful, thanking Clinton for U.S. "contributions" to Afghanistan and vowing to always think of the United States as "a friend."
"As two mature nations and as two mature governments -- by now the Afghan government is mature, too -- we'll be having disagreements on issues from time to time, but that is the sign of a mature relationship and the sign of a steady relationship," Karzai said. "And this steady and mature relationship is definitely going to get us the objectives in pursuit of which we have joined hands, to bring security to Afghanistan and, by extension, to the United States and to the rest of the world."
Karzai will meet with Obama for more than three hours on May 12, according to the White House. The last time the two men met, it was during a surprise visit by Obama to Kabul.Exchanging Messages
In March, Obama flew to Karzai's side to deliver the message that the Afghan leader needed to do more to tackle corruption -- the endemic problem that Washington sees as the reason why more progress hasn't been made in governance and development.
Both in his inauguration speech last year and again at a foreign donors' conference in London in January, Karzai vowed to do better. In the days preceding his visit to Washington, administration officials pointed to "promising signs" that he was.
On May 11, Clinton touched on that issue only briefly in her remarks, acknowledging that "long-term stability requires improved government capacity at every level...[and] a common and concerted effort against corruption."
Karzai repeated previous pledges to tackle corruption, saying, "Afghanistan will continue to build its institutions to preserve its progress and to walk towards the future with steady, strong steps."
In his meeting with Obama on May 12, Karzai is expected to press the U.S. president on civilian casualties, which have undermined the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan.
According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, 2,412 civilians were killed by the war in 2009, which is an increase of 14 percent over the number who lost their lives in 2008. An additional 3,566 Afghan civilians were wounded as a result of the war in 2009.
Karzai raised the issue briefly at today's State Department ceremony, saying, "We must be working very hard to prevent completely and end completely to the extent possible for us these possibilities of [civilian] casualties and the consequences that it has for us all." Taliban Talks
For his part, Obama is expected to ask Karzai for details on the Afghan leader's plan to reintegrate Taliban fighters into mainstream society and to possibly reconcile with Taliban leaders. A national peace assembly, or jirga, is planned for May 29 in Kabul.
Washington wants members of the Taliban to meet strict conditions before they can rejoin society, including renouncing violence and embracing the Afghan Constitution and the freedoms and rights it enshrines.
On that point, Clinton -- who has made the rights of women and girls a top priority as secretary of state -- took the opportunity today to remind Karzai of the document's declaration of the rights of women.
The United States, she said, looks "forward to the inclusion of women in all aspects of reintegration and reconciliation efforts and in all aspects of Afghan society."