US, Karzai Pledge Enduring Ties, Map Out 'Shared Future'
WASHINGTON - The United States and Afghanistan pledged Tuesday to forge ties that will outlast the withdrawal of US combat forces but raised mutual fears over Afghan government corruption and civilian casualties.
On the second of his four-day, red-carpet visit, Afghan President Hamid Karzai sat down with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their high-level teams to map out what the chief US diplomat called their "shared" future.
Senior officials from both sides later opened broad-ranging talks that included boosting agriculture, fighting drug trafficking and training the Afghan army and police.
The visit comes as the US military gears up for a crucial stage of President Barack Obama's strategy to surge 30,000 extra troops into Afghanistan, in a bid to defeat the Taliban and allow US forces to start coming home next year.
"Let me be clear: As we look toward a responsible, orderly transition in the international combat mission in Afghanistan, we will not abandon the Afghan people," Clinton said as she sat next to Karzai.
"Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future," she told US and Afghan ministers seated at a U-shaped table in a chandeliered room of the State Department.
Overlooking his public spats with Washington over charges of corruption and vote-rigging in last year's elections, Karzai said his country will not forget US contributions and sacrifices in Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan is known around the world for being a country that remembers a friend -- and for long. And that assurance I can give you on behalf of the Afghan people, Madame Secretary," the Afghan leader said.
The pair's remarks set the tone for a day-long series of meetings of ministers aimed at cementing a US-Afghan relationship that has shown many cracks in the first year of the Obama administration.
Both Clinton and Karzai anticipated further US-Afghan disagreements but said they would only underline the maturity and steadfastness of the relationship.
The pair touched on some sore points, with Clinton referring to corruption -- which US officials worry is eroding the public's support for Karzai's government -- and Karzai urging international forces to protect civilians.
While improving security is "an essential first step" in Afghanistan, Clinton said, long-term stability depends on economic development and good governance, which includes fighting corruption.
"I appreciate President Karzai's steps to fight corruption," she said.
Despite promising to deal with endemic corruption when he took office for five more years in November, Karzai is widely considered to have taken little action other than blaming donor nations for lax supervision of pledged aid.
And his government said Tuesday it had dissolved 152 Afghan and 20 international aid organizations, some for misconduct.
Karzai also raised his government's demands for a better relationship.
"Afghanistan will seek respect for its judicial independence. Afghanistan will be seeking protection for its civilian population," said the Afghan leader, wearing his trademark cap and robes.
"I am very thankful to General (Stanley) McChrystal for the effort that he is putting in for the protection of Afghan civilians, with results," he said, as McChrystal, the leader of US forces in Afghanistan, looked on.
He expressed appreciation that when Afghan civilians have been mistakenly killed by US or NATO firepower, the US commander has called him immediately to apologize for the deaths.
"But as we all understand well, we must be working very hard to prevent completely and incompletely, to the extent possible for us, these possibilities of casualties and the consequences that it has for us all," he said.
Karzai is also expected to press for greater support for plans to integrate Taliban insurgents -- over which Washington has expressed some misgivings.
Karzai promised that his government would assume its responsibilities in developing Afghanistan so that his war-torn country "is no longer a burden on your shoulders."
Scheduled for Wednesday are a tete-a-tete meeting with Obama and a dinner hosted by Vice President Joe Biden.
In a gesture that could play well with the US public, Karzai will visit Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday to pay tribute to US war dead.