US, Afghanistan pledge enduring ties despite rows

The United States and Afghanistan pledged to forge ties that will outlast the withdrawal of US combat forces as Washington highlighted concerns over Afghan government corruption.

Updated: May 12, 2010, 10:54 AM IST

Washington: The United States and Afghanistan pledged to forge ties that will outlast the withdrawal of US combat forces as Washington highlighted concerns over Afghan government corruption.

On Tuesday, second day of a 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 about boosting agriculture, increasing Afghanistan`s transit trade through Pakistan, 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.

"We will not abandon the Afghan people," Clinton said as she sat next to Karzai before a U-shaped table where 40 US and Afghan ministers had gathered in a chandeliered room of the State Department.

"Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future."

In the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States, US officials regretted having forgotten about Afghanistan after the mujahedeen holy warriors it and other countries backed drove Soviet occupation forces from Afghanistan.

Ignoring his recent public spats with Washington over charges of corruption and vote-rigging in last year`s elections, Karzai echoed Clinton`s point about an enduring relationship.

"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.

Karzai promised not to forget US contributions and sacrifices and later joined Clinton for a tour of Washington`s Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, where he met US soldiers who had lost limbs in combat in Afghanistan.

Back at the State Department, Karzai recalled it was an "extremely painful moment for me" to see the wounded soldiers and said it a "stark reminder" of the difficult road that lay ahead.

Though both sought to put the rows of the past behind them, Clinton and Karzai anticipated further disagreements they said would only reveal the strength of their ties.

They then raised concerns about what the other is doing.

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.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said meanwhile the US Congress will press Karzai to rein in corruption. Pelosi said Congress would welcome Karzai and show respect for his office, "but we do have questions that require answers."

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.

Karzai also raised his own 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.

He praised recent efforts by General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US forces in Pakistan who was in the same room Tuesday, to shield civilians from harm, but he called for further efforts.

McChrystal, Defense Secretary Gates, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, held break-out meetings with Afghan defense and security officials, including Defense Minister Mohammad Rahim Wardak.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Gates stressed that US assistance to the Afghan military and government would continue long after the war was over.

And as part of efforts to bolster defense ties, both sides agreed to begin "a regular high-level defense dialogue between our two governments," Morrell said.
Karzai was also expected to press for greater support for plans to integrate Taliban insurgents -- over which Washington has expressed some misgivings.

Karzai promised his government would assume its responsibilities in developing Afghanistan so his war-torn country "is no longer a burden on your shoulders."

Clinton said these talks would help the Karzai government present a more detailed plan for strengthening institutions at an international conference in Kabul on July 20, one that builds on the meetings in London in January.

Scheduled for Wednesday are a tete-a-tete meeting with Obama and a dinner hosted by Vice President Joe Biden.

Bureau Report