Reporting from Washington — President Obama signaled Wednesday that despite his earlier hesitation he may embrace a plan by his counterpart from Afghanistan to reconcile with certain Taliban leaders in hopes of uniting the country and ending a conflict that has stretched nearly nine years.
Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaking to reporters at a joint White House news conference, downplayed grievances that had flared into public view in recent months.
"With respect to perceived tensions between the U.S. government and the Afghan government, let me begin by saying a lot of them were simply overstated," Obama said in the East Room of the White House, with Karzai standing to his right in a purple and green striped robe.
But they said tensions were bound to recur and that difficult work remained in addressing each other's concerns, such as corruption in the Afghan government and civilian casualties resulting from U.S.-led military action.
Only last month, Karzai suggested that he might join the Taliban insurgency rather than yield to foreign pressure to reform his government. Karzai also accused Western powers of rigging elections and morphing into an invading force.
But after two days of meetings in Washington and a session with Obama in the Oval Office, Karzai spoke in a tone that was respectful and patient, and he repeatedly nodded in agreement as Obama spoke. Obama kept his gaze fixed on Karzai as the Afghan leader addressed an audience that included Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and an array of diplomats and military leaders.
Karzai has been treated with enormous deference throughout his weeklong visit. He met with congressional leaders on Wednesday and later was a dinner guest at the official residence of Vice President Joe Biden.
The courtesies are meant to reassure Karzai that he is a valued partner, critical to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
In his remarks, Karzai said he was committed to helping the White House meet its goals: defeating extremists, ridding his government of corruption and setting up a viable security force that can step in once the U.S. starts withdrawing troops in July 2011.
"We are in a campaign against terrorism together," Karzai said. "There are days that we are happy; there are days that we are not happy. It's a mutual relationship towards a common objective."
Karzai has used the visit to solicit concessions. He wants the U.S.-led coalition forces to curb civilian casualties, and he is asking for control of prisons and detention facilities operated by the United States. Obama pledged cooperation on both counts.
But Karzai is also looking for Obama to endorse a peace plan that carries a politically risky element: reconciling with some of the Taliban's leaders. To date, the administration has been cool to the idea. With the Afghan war already unpopular at home, many Americans are likely to be further dismayed at the thought of making amends with figures who killed U.S. troops.
After returning to Afghanistan, Karzai plans to convene a jirga, or traditional tribal council, to help determine the shape of future peace talks.
At an international conference on Afghanistan in London in January, U.S. officials said they favored assimilation of enemy foot soldiers who disarm and renounce violence. But they refused to publicly discuss the notion of reconciliation with top Taliban leaders.
U.S. officials have worried that Karzai might cut secret deals with militant leaders, including some with a history of war crimes and human rights abuses. The Obama administration has been divided internally over the issue.
At the news conference, Obama indicated that he was open to the plan. He said the jirga would provide a basis for future talks.
"What we've said is that so long as there's a respect for the Afghan Constitution, rule of law, human rights; so long as they are willing to renounce violence and ties to Al Qaeda and other extremist networks; that President Karzai should be able to work to reintegrate those individuals into Afghan society," Obama said.
The president added an important caveat: To maximize leverage in such negotiations, the coalition needs more success in routing the Taliban.
"One of the things I emphasized to President Karzai, however, is, that the incentives for the Taliban to lay down arms, or at least portions of the Taliban to lay down arms, and make peace with the Afghan government in part depends on our effectiveness in breaking their momentum militarily," Obama said.
A senior Obama administration official later elaborated. "The meetings the last couple days have enabled us to reach a good understanding of how the reconciliation process will proceed, and we are fully supportive of Karzai's efforts going forward," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
When he returns home, Karzai can point to some diplomatic victories.