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Obama, Karzai to Mend Fences During Afghan Leader's Washington Visit

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In this May 6, 2009 file photo, President Obama, accompanied by Vice President Biden and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, makes a statement in the Grand Foyer of the White House (AP)

If the best part of breaking up is making up, then Afghan president Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington next week should be a doozy.

After publicly feuding for months with President Obama over his leadership in Afghanistan, Karzai will work to recast his image as a mercurial leader prone to outbursts against the West into one of a credible partner worthy of the thousands of U.S. troops and billions of dollars of aid still pouring into his nation in its ninth year of war.

The two will meet Wednesday for Oval Office talks. Then they will hold a joint news conference, have lunch and later dinner at Vice President Biden's home.

If Karzai's successful in the visit, which starts Monday and ends Thursday, the Afghan president will leave Washington with renewed legitimacy and the political backing he needs for possible peace talks with the Taliban.

"Meetings with President Obama and U.S. Cabinet officials will reinforce the long-term and vital partnership between our two countries in areas ranging from security to governance and economic development," Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week.

The trip comes at a critical juncture in the war. At the same time that more troops and aid are moving into Afghanistan, the U.S. has made it clear that its involvement is not open-ended. Obama, who gathered his national security team to discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan on Thursday at the White House, wants to start pulling out troops in July 2011 if conditions allow. That's 15 months from now.

Karzai is traveling to Washington with nearly a dozen members of his Cabinet who will hold in-depth discussions with their counterparts about development priorities and other issues. Showing up with these ministers — many with strong backing from the international community — will help Karzai make the point that while bribery and graft is rife in some ministries, there are many Cabinet officials committed to progress and reform.

The meetings will end with a communique, but a renewed strategic partnership agreement being drafted in Kabul and Washington won't be ready to be signed until later this year.

Karzai is going to Washington as the 30,000 U.S. reinforcements Obama dispatched to the war continue to stream into the country. About 4,500 have deployed, with another 18,000 due to arrive by late spring and the rest by early fall. The military buildup is aimed at routing the Taliban from their strongholds, especially in the south, and bolster security needed to start development projects and offer public services so Karzai's government can win the support of residents.

But the U.S.-Afghan relationship has suffered in recent months from friction between the two nations. The U.S. is pressing Karzai to reform his government and reduce corruption. Fed up with years of foreigners meddling in his government, Karzai is demanding respect as the leader of a sovereign state that is anxious, but not yet able, to take charge of its own affairs.

"The president of Afghanistan wants frank discussions — frank discussions — about things that can be improved," Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said.

The White House nearly cancelled the meeting last month following a remarkable outburst from Karzai.

After Obama visited Kabul in late March, Karzai lashed out against the U.N. and the international community, accusing them of perpetrating a "vast fraud" in last year's presidential polls as part of a conspiracy to deny him re-election or tarnish his victory — accusations the U.S. and the United Nations have denied. Two days later, Karzai told a group of parliament members that if foreign interference in his government continued, the Taliban would become a legitimate resistance — one that he might even join, according to several lawmakers present.

First, U.S. officials called the remarks "troubling." After a few days, U.S. officials worked to smooth over the rift by expressing sympathy for Karzai and the pressure he's endured and repeatedly referring to him as "commander in chief" of his country. Even if the U.S. believes Karzai is a flawed leader, it cannot afford to alienate him because he is key to a successful American exit from the war.

Karzai, however, is not likely to be coddled by U.S. lawmakers currently deciding whether to approve the Pentagon's request to spend $192 billion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the next year and a half — $33 billion of it for Afghanistan. Members of both parties bristled at Karzai's tirade against the U.S. last month and he'll need to earn back their trust.