Hillary Clinton Says U.S. ‘Will Not Abandon the Afghan People’
"We will not abandon the Afghan people. Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future," Clinton said, with Karzai at her side in the ornate Benjamin Franklin room at the State Department.
Clinton and Karzai both offered opening remarks, stressing the positive but also acknowledging that sharp differences have complicated efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and set the stage for an end to the war.
"The ability to disagree on issues of importance to our respective countries and peoples is not an obstacle to achieving our shared objectives," Clinton said. "Rather, it reflects a level of trust that is essential to any meaningful dialogue and enduring strategic partnership."
Dressed in his customary Afghan attire, including a bright green and blue robe, Karzai thanked the U.S. for its contributions since routing the Taliban regime in late 2001, but he also cautioned that international forces in his country must do more to avoid causing civilian casualties. He said Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander of the international force that is fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, is the first foreign commander to apologize to him each time a military operation costs civilian lives.
Karzai also said it was natural for Kabul and Washington to see the situation differently, even while working together.
"As two mature nations and two mature governments -- by now the Afghan government is mature, too -- we will be having disagreements from time to time," Karzai said.
Karzai also told Clinton that he is asking the U.S. to support a development strategy to assure Afghanistan's long-term economic viability, "so Afghanistan can in a few years' time not be any more a burden on your shoulders, so that Afghanistan can stand on its own feet, so Afghanistan can defend its country, so that Afghanistan can feed its people with its own income, so we can pay for our lives from our own pockets."
Both countries' delegations were seated in the Franklin room at a U-shaped table covered in white cloth, with the American and Afghan flags standing behind Clinton and Karzai. The same venue was to be used for a swank reception for Karzai later Tuesday under glittering chandeliers.
In the room for the opening session were 40 top U.S. and Afghan officials with responsibility in the areas of agriculture, education, security, finance, health and other services. In a bid to make the proceedings appear less adversarial, the delegations did not sit facing each other but were rather interspersed sitting side-by-side.
Thus Defense Secretary Robert Gates sat next to his Afghan counterpart, Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, rather than across from him. Also present for the Obama administration were CIA Director Leon Panetta, McChrystal, Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul.
Karzai is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday and wind up his visit on Thursday.
The U.S. hopes the visit will bolster ties with Karzai, a leader the administration once held at arm's length. After winning re-election in a tainted vote last year, Karzai seems destined to preside over Afghanistan's political reconciliation and the gradual withdrawal of the U.S.-led forces now holding the insurgents at bay.
Karzai has said overtures to the Taliban are crucial, but stand little chance of success without the support of the U.S. and its international partners. Previous attempts to negotiate with insurgents were not fruitful.
It's not clear how far apart the U.S. and Afghan positions remain, but the Obama administration has shown no sign that it is ready to make peace with top Taliban leadership. The go-slow approach reflects differences of opinion within the White House and military, and queasiness about any accommodation with the Taliban figured who harbored al-Qaida leaders before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Associated Press National Security Writers Anne Gearan and Robert Burns contributed to this report.