Obama drops tough love approach with Karzai 

With much at stake and not much progress lately, the White House is dropping its frostiness and putting out a new welcome mat for Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

After publicly criticizing Karzai over corruption, his nation's drug trade and more, the Obama administration is hosting Karzai and his top leaders for two days of joint appearances and meetings aimed at healing the rift.

"We can't expect the United States and Afghanistan to agree on every issue -- we will not," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "But President Obama and President Karzai both understand that the ability to disagree on issues of importance to our respective countries and peoples is not an obstacle to achieving our shared objectives."

The warm embrace is a notable contrast to Obama's March visit to Kabul, when he was visibly irritated with Karzai and stayed only a short time in the country -- an unmistakable snub to an important ally.

Karzai responded by sharply criticizing U.S. and British interests, alleging interference in his elections and expressing sympathy with the Taliban. The White House warned that this week's visit could be postponed.

While President George W. Bush maintained a strong relationship with Karzai despite similar concerns about his leadership, Obama since coming to office has taken a wary, distrustful stance toward the Afghan leader.

But both sides have since cooled off, and appear eager to show the hard feelings have passed. At the State Department Tuesday, Karzai said the two powers have once again "joined hands."

"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.

For his part, Karzai needs to maintain the alliance to stay in power and continue receiving military, economic and other assistance.

Obama, meanwhile, needs to show some progress in Afghanistan following his troop surge and contemplated withdrawal. Both leaders are looking to Congress to continue funding operations in Afghanistan.

James Phillips, an expert on the region at the Heritage Foundation, said the warming trend signals an understanding of shared interests between the two sides.

"I hope it means the White House has realized it can't win this war without a close, working relationship with Karzai," Phillips said. "It's self-defeating to publicly criticize Karzai if it just makes him more difficult to work with."

While Obama will continue pressing Karzai privately on concerns such as corruption and the drug trade, the visit is aimed more at smoothing over tensions than marking specific progress.

In their meetings, Karzai is expected to press Obama about civilian casualties in Afghanistan, a problem that undermines public support for the nine-year-old war.

Obama is looking for an update on Karzai's efforts to rebuild government and improve civil institutions. The two are expected to speak at a rare joint press conference at the White House -- an honor preserved for favored guests.


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