Karzai to visit US troops heading to Afghanistan

Afghan Prez Hamid Karzai completes his US tour with a visit to US troops.

Virginia: Afghan President Hamid Karzai completes his US tour Friday with a visit to US troops from the 101st Airborne Division weeks before they deploy to his war-torn country.
The US Army`s Fort Campbell post has played a key role in President Barack Obama`s surge of 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan, a bid to turn around the nine-year war against the Taliban and al Qaeda. But the top US and NATO commander in the country voiced cautious optimism about the effort.

Walking through "the saddest acre in America" amid rows of white gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday, a somber Karzai bore witness to the tragic cost paid by Americans in the war.

The visit was part of a carefully scripted four-day trip by the Afghan leader designed to mend fences with his main ally after strains marked by Karzai`s angry public outbursts.

The commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said there was still no clear winner in the war.

"In the last year, we`ve made a lot of progress," McChrystal told PBS television. "I think I`d be prepared to say nobody is winning at this point. Where the insurgents, I think, felt that they had momentum a year ago, felt that they were making clear progress -- I think that`s stopped."

He predicted the outcome of a pivotal bid to push the Taliban out of Kandahar and nearby villages would be clear by the end of the year.

"I think it`s going to be the end of this calendar year before you will know" if the operation is working, the general told reporters earlier. "I may know before that."

NATO commanders view Kandahar -- capital of the 1996-2001 Taliban regime -- as a make-or-break battleground in the war.

McChrystal said there were signs of progress in Kandahar as US and Afghan forces expand their presence, but the Taliban still contested parts of the southern city.

Operations by US-led forces and the Afghan army were designed to improve security but winning the trust of Afghans was the ultimate goal, he said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the effort in Kandahar would not resemble the large-scale US Marine offensive in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.

"Lessons have been learned since Iraq," she said during a public forum at the US Institute of Peace.

In neighboring Helmand province, McChrystal said there had been "dramatic" progress after coalition troops forced the Taliban out of Marjah in February.

But the Kabul government had to "convince the people they have the capability to deliver and then the political will to follow through," he noted.

US and NATO officials see Karzai`s corruption-plagued government as a vulnerable link in their strategy, especially after his re-election last year was marred by fraud allegations.

During his visit to the US military cemetery at Arlington, Karzai sought to address perceived Afghan ingratitude for US sacrifices.

He knelt briefly before a soldier`s grave, bending to touch flower petals, and then caressed a pebble placed on another`s headstone.

Section 60, where Karzai stopped to pay tribute, has space for some 12,500 graves, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have nearly filled two-thirds of the area.

Veterans killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam are buried here. Among them are also 468 men and women killed in the Iraq war and 140 who died in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, Karzai met US troops severely wounded in Afghanistan, including a soldier who lost all his limbs, in a tour of Washington`s Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital.

In a bid to put angry spats behind them, Karzai and Obama emerged from their White House talks Wednesday with a vow to stand together and fight al Qaeda.

While acknowledging there had been strains, Obama insisted the tensions were "overstated," as Karzai put on an effusive show of support for US war goals.

In keeping with the new united front, US lawmakers on Thursday welcomed Karzai onto the Senate floor in the middle of a debate and treated him to a standing ovation.

About half of Obama`s additional troops have arrived since he issued the orders in December. He has set a deadline of July 2011 to begin gradually withdrawing US forces.

Karzai and his deputies this week sought assurances on a possible security agreement with the United States that would ensure a US commitment to Kabul beyond mid-2011, a US official said.

Bureau Report