Despite Recent Tension, White House Positive Ahead of Karzai Visit

The White House on Friday reaffirmed its commitment in Afghanistan ahead of next week's meeting between President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which has been overshadowed by recent tensions between the two governments.

The two leaders met in late March in Kabul after Mr. Obama made a previously-unannounced visit to the region. During that trip, Mr. Obama is said to have put pressure on Karzai to crack down on internal corruption.

After the meeting, Karzai accused the West of interfering with Afghan affairs, and blamed the U.S. government for the fraud that took place in last year's Afghan election.

Days later Karzai implied that he would abandon the political process all together and join the Taliban.

The May 12 meeting hung in the balance for weeks, with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs at one point telling reporters that any other negative comments from Karzai could potentially jeopardize the visit.

But administration officials on Friday emphasized a strong working relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan, and said that Washington has seen progress since Mr. Obama visited Karzai in March.

"I think there were a number of discussions that we had in Kabul that led to positive steps taken by the Afghan government," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said on a conference call with reporters.

The White House may be doing some damage control ahead of Wednesday's scheduled meeting.

National Security Adviser Jim Jones told reporters traveling to Kabul with Mr. Obama in March that the main purpose of his trip would be to pressure Karzai, adding that there had been no political progress made since the Afghan president's inauguration in November.

Observers say the administration's strategy may have backfired. "If you have a positive rapport with this man you can work with him. You can find ways to put pressure on him and make him feel that you are doing it from a position of respect and trust," said Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution. "If you go right to his face publicly you tend not to get a good response and frankly we should know that by now."

The White House Friday acknowledged it is not 100 percent satisfied with the progress in Afghanistan, which has been plagued by recent violence and government corruption.

"We have made clear that where we think more needs to be done, we'll communicate that directly to the Afghans," said Rhodes. "And also aim to support positive movement on issues related to corruption and governance in ways that we can."

The president's top adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan stressed the need to get past "ups and downs" and focus on the common goals shared between the two nations. "These aren't going to deter us from meeting our common objectives. And it's very much that sort of common objectives that underlay the partnership and the way forward which will dominate the visit next week," said Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute.

The main objective, Lute said, is to work towards the administration's goal of transitioning authority to the Afghans by July 2011. Asked whether the White House believes that is feasible, Lute was optimistic. "I can tell you that as of now, sort of halfway through this year, we are on track with where we expect to be with both the army and the police."