WASHINGTON (CN) – Tensions over the past month between the White House and Afghan President Hamid Karzai “were simply overstated,” President Obama said at a news conference Wednesday in the East Room of the White House. The two leaders said they were being more frank with each other and stood united to fight terrorism and strengthen the Afghan government.
“I am more convinced than ever that we have found a different but appropriate approach,” Obama told journalists and U.S. and Afghan leaders after he and Karzai met for less than an hour in the White House.
“We are much more strongly related today than we ever have been before,” Karzai said. “Afghanistan is again on the world map” because of U.S. assistance, he said.
The press conference was designed to portray a united front after a rocky few weeks in which sharp words were exchanged between the Obama administration and Karzai, with the White House blaming Karzai for fostering corruption and Karzai accusing the U.S. government of interfering with elections.
“A lot of them were simply overstated,” Obama said of the tensions, as Karzai, standing next to him, nodded in agreement.
The Obama administration worked hard to inject Karzai’s visit to Washington this week with a positive tone.
Karzai said talks Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been “extremely fruitful” and said his visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to see U.S. soldiers who had been wounded in Afghanistan was especially touching.
“It’s not an imaginary relationship. It’s a real relationship,” Karzai said of the partnership. He called it “strong” and “well-rooted,” but also acknowledged that “there are moments we speak frankly to each other.”
Obama used the press conference to outline his three-pronged strategy to stabilizing Afghanistan — involving political, economic and regional facets — and stressed the importance of Afghanistan to U.S. security interests.
He said current U.S. military presence was designed to break up the momentum of Taliban fighters and help empower Afghan leaders so they could take over governance.
“There’s going to be some hard fighting,” Obama said.
He said the U.S. military under Gen. Stanley McChrystal was focusing on depopulating areas of Taliban control over the next few months.
Obama said more than half of the troop surge he ordered in December 2009 is now in place and is working to “reverse the momentum of the insurgency.”
The topic of civilian casualties arising from the war in Afghanistan carried the strongest emotional weight in the room. When an Afghan journalist asked Karzai about civilian casualties, Karzai replied that he and Obama had “frank” discussions about the issue, and that Obama’s concern was a message that Karzai was “very happy to convey back to the Afghan people.”
“When there is a civilian casualty, that is not just a political concern,” Obama said. “I am ultimately accountable.”
When asked about his promise to bring home U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011, Obama said, “Let’s be clear about what July 2011 represents. This is a long-term partnership, not simply defined by our military strategy.”
Obama said he will start reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan next July, but said the United States will still send resources to the country to help strengthen the economy.
“This transformation is not going to happen overnight,” Obama said.
Karzai acknowledged that the United States was devoting “considerable” resources to Afghanistan — providing 80 percent of its foreign aid — and said he would work with “dedication and extreme care” to ensure that the funds got to the right places, adding that the country was still impoverished.
Karzai said part of his strategy is drawing members of the Taliban back into Afghan society.
“Thousands [of Taliban] are country boys,” Karzai said, drawn in to Taliban militancy by fear or lack of opportunity. They are not against Afghanistan or the United States and they “want to come back,” Karzai said.
“Taliban” is a loose term for a wide range of people with different motivations, Obama explained. He said allowing members of the Taliban to rejoin Afghan society required that they demonstrate respect for human rights and renounce ties to al-Qaida.
“This has to be an Afghan effort,” Obama said, citing his support of Karzai’s upcoming peace jirga, or conference, scheduled for May 29, which will explore how to reintegrate members of the Taliban into Afghan society.
Regionally, Obama said that over the past several months, Pakistan has realized that “they have a cancer in their midst” of insurgency, and said he was encouraged by the development. “The only way Pakistan is secure is if Afghanistan is secure,” Obama said.
When asked about Iran, Karzai said that while the United States is a “partner and friend” to Afghanistan, “Iran is our neighbor, our brother,” who has also helped fund Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
“We wish the best to both countries,” Karzai said. “If there is anything we can do to make things better, call us,” he said, prompting laughter.