Karzai, Obama seek to mend caustic ties in visit

* Both sides seek to show united front

* Pressure on governance and corruption

* Planning for peace “jirga” and Kabul meeting

By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON, May 10 (BestGrowthStock) – Afghan President Hamid
Karzai arrives in Washington on Monday on a trip aimed at
mending recent public spats during a pivotal time in the
nine-year war.

Karzai will get the red-carpet treatment during his
four-day visit, including a Rose Garden news conference with
President Barack Obama on Wednesday when the two are expected
to exchange smiles and warm handshakes.

In private, however, the message from Obama is expected to
be firm — that Washington wants to start pulling out U.S.
troops from Afghanistan from July 2011 and Karzai must do a
better job on governance issues and tackling corruption.

“Where we think more needs to be done, we’ll communicate
that directly to the Afghans, and also aim to support positive
movement on issues related to corruption and governance in ways
that we can,” said deputy national security advisor Ben
Rhodes.

The White House concedes there have been “ups and downs” in
the relationship, referring to recent testy exchanges with
Karzai following anti-Western comments he made, including
putting much of the blame for corruption on foreign donors.

In an editorial in The Washington Post on Sunday, Karzai
also said there had been “our share of disagreements” but
sought to set a positive tone for his visit.

“What has kept us together is an overriding strategic
vision of an Afghanistan whose peace and stability can
guarantee the safety of the Afghan and the American peoples,”
Karzai wrote.

Karzai said good governance and rooting out corruption were
among his top priorities, promising to “do more” — a demand
lawmakers will press when he visits Capitol Hill.

Experts said it was important to show recent tensions were
behind them as both sides needed each other.

“I am confident both presidents have it within them to take
that deep breath and to use this visit to move forward as
partners,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan and Iraq
Ryan Crocker.

AFGHAN CONCERNS

Karzai has his own concerns and is expected to raise the
issue of civilian casualties as well as a growing worry among
many Afghans that U.S. commitment to the country will wane
quickly once it starts withdrawing troops.

Nearly all of Karzai’s Cabinet will be in Washington for
the four days of meetings — emulating the “strategic dialogue”
held in March with Pakistan that was aimed at showing deeper,
long-term ties between the two countries.

Karzai’s visit comes at an important juncture in the war,
with 30,000 additional U.S. troops expected there by the end of
August and an upcoming military offensive to take full control
of Kandahar, the spiritual hub of the Taliban in the South.

More immediately, there will be a so-called grand council
of Afghans, or peace “jirga,” planned in Kabul from May 29 to
discuss how to make peace with the insurgents and Obama is
looking for more details on how that will pan out.

The United States has made clear that only those senior
Taliban leaders who renounce violence and ties to al Qaeda
should be brought in and would prefer for there to be more
gains on the battlefield before then.

A draft peace proposal by the Afghan government indicates
Taliban leaders may be offered exile overseas in third
countries in an effort to persuade insurgents to end the war.

Another focus will be on planning for an international
conference on Afghanistan due in Kabul in late July as well as
September parliamentary elections.

In addition, Karzai will be looking for greater action
against sanctuaries for insurgents in neighboring Pakistan
which he said was “harming our cause.”

Washington has been putting more pressure on Islamabad to
tackle sanctuaries both for the Afghan and the Pakistani
Taliban, the group suspected of being behind a foiled attack on
Times Square this month.
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(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Karzai, Obama seek to mend caustic ties in visit