WASHINGTON – The war in Afghanistan will get worse before it gets better, President Barack Obama warned on Wednesday, but he declared his plan to begin withdrawing U.S. forces next year remains on track.
Standing alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama said, "What I've tried to emphasize is the fact that there is going to be some hard fighting over the next several months."
The two leaders spoke at a White House news conference as U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan prepare to push hard into the Taliban's birthplace in Kandahar province in June. The campaign for Kandahar, already under way in districts outside the city, is expected to be among the bloodiest of the nearly 9-year-old war.
"There is no denying the progress," Obama said. "Nor, however, can we deny the very serious challenges still facing Afghanistan."
Karzai's warm White House welcome followed months of sniping and frustration over management of the war and about fraud allegations surrounding Karzai's re-election last year. Both leaders said disagreements are normal with so much at stake.
"There are moments when we speak frankly to each other, and that frankness will only contribute to the strength of the relationship," Karzai said with a smile.
The United States has taken "extraordinary measures" to avoid civilian deaths in the war, Obama said, a nod to Karzai's loud complaints last year that U.S. airstrikes were killing innocents and making enemies of those who might be friends.
"I do not want civilians killed," Obama said, adding that he is ultimately accountable when they are.
Heavy restrictions on when U.S. warplanes can fire at suspected militants are among the changes to war policy installed by the general Obama sent last year to turn around the war.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, facing Obama and Karzai in the front row Wednesday, has said he is willing to let a few killers slip away if it means saving civilian lives. Insurgents often hide among civilians, taking over homes or using refuge provided willingly by sympathizers. Obama accepted McChrystal's argument that either way, killing the other people in a house only breeds resentment and makes it harder to argue that the U.S.-backed government in Kabul is on their side.
"After all it's the Afghan people we are working to protect from the Taliban," Obama said.
In announcing a major expansion of the war last year — one that will bring a record 98,000 U.S. forces to Afghanistan by the end of this summer — Obama also said he would begin bringing some forces home in July 2011. The date was meant to reassure Pakistan and Obama's anti-war supporters at home that the war was not open-ended. It was also intended as a signal to Karzai that the United States expected something for its commitment, namely progress in establishing a real working government and attacking endemic corruption.
"We are not suddenly as of July 2011 finished with Afghanistan," Obama said. "After July 2011 we are still going to have an interest in making sure that Afghanistan is secure, that economic development is taking place, that good governance is being promoted."
Addressing Americans, Obama said they should know "we are steadily making progress. It's not overnight."
At least 982 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. military action since late 2001, according to an Associated Press count.
Billions in aid, roughly 80 percent of it from the United States, has helped provide schools, roads, government offices and impartial judges. The money and the constant presence of U.S. forces have failed to decisively turn the tide of the war, however, and military commanders say time is dwindling to make a difference.
The Taliban have surged back over the past five years to become a flexible army with plenty of resources and wider popular support than the United States has sometimes been willing to acknowledge.
"I've used whatever political capital I have to make the case to the American people that this is in our national security interests, that it's absolutely critical that we succeed on this mission," Obama said.
The war against violent extremism isn't confined within Afghanistan's borders, he said.
Questioned by an Afghan reporter, he said he sees a growing recognition among leaders in neighboring Pakistan that the extremist groups who are based there represent a "cancer in their midst." He said Pakistani leaders are recognizing that the groups that are using Pakistan's frontier as a base are threatening the nation's sovereignty.
Later Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden said he thought the Afghan leader was a trustworthy partner. "I certainly do," Biden said in response to a reporter's question before a dinner with Karzai. Biden also said tensions between the two governments "absolutely" had eased.
Obama's Afghanistan exit strategy depends heavily on propping up a strong central government in Afghanistan. But U.S. military and civilian officials say that won't be possible until the local population learns to trust the new authorities.
Only a quarter of the key regions in Afghanistan support or even sympathize with the government in Kabul, with large swaths of the country still hesitant to swing behind the U.S.-backed authority, according to a Pentagon assessment released last month.
The report found that as of March, much of the country is either neutral to Afghan authorities or supportive of the Taliban insurgency. Only 29 of 121 districts in Afghanistan identified as "key terrain" support or sympathize with the Kabul government. More Afghans did report feeling safer, with 84 percent saying security levels were "fair" or "good."
Afghanistan's top leaders are spending most of the week in Washington for fence-mending and an examination of the war strategy ahead of the Kandahar operation. The visit comes about midway between Obama's announcement last December that he would add 30,000 troops and what he has said will be a reappraisal of the U.S. battle plan at the end of this year. It also comes weeks ahead of a peace summit called by Karzai to prepare for eventual talks with Taliban and other militants.
Karzai appears to agree with outside analysts who say that senior Taliban, including some with blood on their hands, must be at the table for any serious negotiation to stick. The United States has ruled out discussions with anyone who has not renounced ties to al-Qaida, reflecting the sensitivity of cutting deals with people who were even indirectly responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. The United States, however, has not spelled out what middle ground it might approve, and although Obama said the outreach effort must be managed by Afghans, Karzai has said he needs U.S. backing before he makes a move.
Initial outreach is directed at Taliban foot soldiers who are not motivated by ideology or affiliated with terrorists, Karzai said. He called them "country boys" driven to the fight by economic hardship. Obama said the two leaders will keep talking about how to approach the larger goal of a full reconciliation that could end the war.