Obama, Karzai meet in Washington

3:19 PM, Jan 11, 2013   |    comments
US President Barack Obama (R) looks on as his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai gestures during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 11, 2013. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Years of tensions between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. government appeared to fade away like a bad dream, at least in public, when Karzai touched down in Washington this week.

Karzai will get half a day's face time with President Barack Obama Friday, following meetings and cordial press appearances with U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday.

After two morning meetings and a working lunch, Obama and Karzai will hold a press conference. Vice President Joe Biden will be present in one of the meetings and at the lunch.

In the run-up to Karzai's visit, the White House floated the idea of leaving Kabul with zero U.S. troops after the 2014 drawdown of combat forces, a bold move that would leave the Afghan government particularly vulnerable.

But the Pentagon pushed back on that Thursday. The zero option would be a bad idea for the United States as well, Panetta said, taking away negotiating leverage with the Taliban.

"The stronger position we take about staying, the better chances we have to ultimately reach political reconciliation," he told journalists.

Karzai showed up to the Pentagon on Thursday with a wish list of military equipment, including drones, helicopters and other hardware to ensure the security of his country by the time NATO forces leave.

Panetta also had a wish to deliver -- the United States wants to make sure Afghanistan does not become a terrorist safe haven again.

Karzai's meeting with Panetta was expected to include some tough talk about the future of Afghanistan. But publicly, there was no appearance of trouble at all.

The Afghan president received a ceremonial greeting on the Pentagon parade grounds that included a 21-gun salute by Army cannons.

"This is a wonderful opportunity, and it comes after 10 years of war, of blood, of battle, the loss of many on both sides," Panetta said in remarks to reporters before their meeting.

"But after a long and difficult path, we finally are, I believe, at the last chapter of establishing an Afghanistan -- a sovereign Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future," he said.

Karzai offered similar sentiment but also promised his country would be secure under its forces, something the United States wonders about.

"I can assure you, Mr. Secretary, that Afghanistan will, with the help that you provide, be able to provide security to its people and to protect its borders; so Afghanistan would not ever again be threatened by terrorists from across our borders," Karzai said.

But Karzai knows that will not be easy as the United States mulls a post-NATO troop presence of between zero and 9,000 soldiers.Additionally, the Afghan population has little faith in the government in Kabul and the security forces are still far from being able to handle things on their own.

That is probably why he came to the Pentagon asking for more helicopters, drones and other hardware to support Afghan forces, according to a senior defense official.

But the United States wants assurances from Karzai that terrorists would not gain a foothold once American troops depart.

The Pentagon left no troops in Iraq, in part because the government demanded that any remaining American forces be subject to Iraqi laws and courts.

A senior Defense official told CNN that he does not see the same kind of inflexibility in Afghanistan.

While sovereignty is extremely important to the Afghans, the official said Karzai is more concerned about Afghan prisoners being held in U.S. military jails than the question of legal protection for American troops.

It is no secret that Karzai wants total Afghan control of detention operations, meaning all Afghans being held by the United States and NATO allies would be turned over to Afghan authorities immediately.

The United States is not eager to give up control of those detainees because of concerns over whether Afghan authorities would properly handle their cases and under what authority they might be released.

(CNN)

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