WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton conceded Tuesday that U.S. relations with Afghanistan are strained, but assured President Hamid Karzai that the U.S. will stand behind his country long after the last American soldier is gone.
A day before Karzai meets President Barack Obama at the White House, Clinton and other senior administration officials gathered at the State Department with their Afghan counterparts for talks on how to force the Taliban to end their insurgency.
The backdrop to the meetings is a rocky relationship between the Obama administration and Karzai, and Tuesday's talks were designed to present at least the appearance of a partnership on the mend.
The Obama administration in the past criticized Karzai for tolerating corruption and drug trafficking in his government, while Karzai has accused Washington of failing to give him the support he needs to govern.
In opening remarks, Clinton and Karzai stressed the positive but acknowledged that sharp differences have complicated efforts to stabilize Afghanistan more than eight years after the Taliban regime was toppled.
"The ability to disagree on issues of importance to our respective countries and peoples is not an obstacle to achieving our shared objectives," Clinton said. "Rather, it reflects a level of trust that is essential to any meaningful dialogue and enduring strategic partnership."
Karzai, with Clinton sitting at his side, also said it was natural for Kabul and Washington to see the situation differently, even while working together toward the same goals.
"As two mature nations and two mature governments – by now the Afghan government is mature, too – we will be having disagreements from time to time," Karzai said.
The Afghan leader later visited wounded U.S. soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In remarks afterward at the State Department, he spoke in emotional terms of his gratitude for U.S. sacrifices.
"To see those young American soldiers, some with very young babies and children, one who just lost both legs, the other who lost both arms and legs, it is really painful experience, an extremely painful wound for me," Karzai said. "I wish that we will have no more people losing their lives and limbs like that."
Karzai will get a more in-depth look at the U.S. military's role when he makes a planned visit Friday to Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the 101st Airborne Division, which is deploying to Afghanistan over the next several weeks.
Clinton's pledge of a long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan reflects the administration's realization that many Afghans see the war as a conflict pursued by the U.S. for its own interests – to forestall another terrorist attack on the U.S. Afghans fear the U.S. will abandon them once they achieve their objectives.
"We will not abandon the Afghan people," Clinton said. "Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future."
At an evening reception, Clinton told a gathering of Afghan, American and other diplomatic representatives and business executives: "We are working on plans for finalizing a strategic partnership declaration later this year." She offered no details, but Karzai has wanted a more formal declaration of a long-term U.S. commitment to his country, including security assistance.
Tuesday's meetings focused on political as well as military conundrums, in particular Washington and Kabul's efforts to come up with a common strategy for political reconciliation with foes of the Afghan government, including the Taliban.
Karzai has said overtures to the Taliban are crucial but stand little chance of success without the support of the U.S. and NATO.
It's not clear how far apart the U.S. and Afghan positions remain, but the Obama administration has shown no sign that it is ready to make peace with top Taliban leadership.
The go-slow approach reflects differences of opinion within the White House and military, and queasiness about any accommodation with the Taliban who harbored al-Qaida leaders before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Rick Nelson, a retired Navy officer who served in Afghanistan last year and is now a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the administration now recognizes that it has little option but to support Karzai and promise a long-term commitment.
"Even if the troops do come home we're not going to abandon Afghanistan – we cannot abandon Afghanistan – as long as we continue to get these threats from western Pakistan," Nelson said, referring not only to al-Qaida leaders like Osama bin Laden but also extremists groups like the Pakistani Taliban.
At the State Department Tuesday, U.S. and Afghan officials also discussed strategies for boosting Afghan agriculture, education and health, as well as battling corruption.
At the opening session in the ornate Benjamin Franklin room, Defense Secretary Robert Gates sat next to his Afghan counterpart, Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, rather than across from him.
Also present for the Obama administration were CIA Director Leon Panetta; McChrystal, Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul.
Gates was meeting later with Wardak at the Pentagon.
Pentagon leaders say they are cautiously optimistic about the war as American forces spread across southern Afghanistan, but a Pentagon report to Congress this month said there were no districts where the counterinsurgency is an unqualified success. The war remains stalemated in key areas.
Dressed in his customary Afghan attire, including a bright green and blue robe, Karzai thanked the U.S. for its support since 2001, but he also cautioned that U.S.-led NATO forces must do more to avoid inflicting civilian casualties.
He said Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. commander of the international force fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, is the first foreign commander to apologize to him each time a military operation costs civilian lives.
Karzai also told Clinton that he is asking the U.S. to support a long-term development strategy, "so Afghanistan can in a few years' time not be any more a burden on your shoulders, so that Afghanistan can stand on its own feet, so Afghanistan can defend its country, so that Afghanistan can feed its people with its own income, so we can pay for our lives from our own pockets."
Karzai is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday and wind up his visit Thursday.
Associated Press national security writer Anne Gearan contributed to this report.