President Obama acknowledged "setbacks" and tensions in the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan and its wartime leader Wednesday, but both he and Afghan President Hamid Karzai said concerns about the future of the partnership have been exaggerated.
"Obviously there are going to be tensions in such a complicated and difficult environment and in a situation in which, on the ground, both Afghans and Americans are making enormous sacrifices," Obama said.
Karzai said disagreements are normal nearly 10 years into a grinding war. Obama said he was confident he would be ale to meet his goal of beginning to withdraw U.S. forces in July 2011, with Afghan security forces beginning to take over the fight.
"There are moments when we speak frankly to each other, and that frankness will only contribute to the strength of the relationship," Karzai told a White House news conference.
Asked whether they discussed the tensions when they met, Obama said "a lot of them were simply overstated."
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During the news conference, Obama also emphasized that his plan to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan next summer remains on track, even though he added that the war will get worse before it gets better.
"What I've tried to emphasize is the fact that there is going to be some hard fighting over the next several months," Obama said. He spoke as the U.S.-led foreign army in Afghanistan gets ready for a push into the Taliban's birthplace in Kandahar Province. The campaign for Kandahar, which is to begin in earnest in June, is expected to be among the bloodiest of the nearly 9-year-old war.
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"There is no denying the progress," Obama said. "Nor, however, can we deny the very serious challenges still facing Afghanistan."
U.S. relations with Afghanistan have been under deep strain, and Wednesday's meeting at the White House was intended to help repair ties. The United States has criticized Karzai for tolerating corruption and drug trafficking, while Karzai has accused Washington of failing to give him the support he needs to govern.
Obama says there have been steady signs of progress since he increased the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan late last year. But he said progress takes time and cautioned that the United States must commit to a long-term partnership with Afghanistan.
Questioned by an Afghan reporter, Obama said he sees a growing recognition among Pakistan's leaders that the extremist groups who are based there represent a "cancer in their midst."
Obama says Pakistani leaders are recognizing that the groups that are using Pakistan's frontier as a base are threatening Pakistan's sovereignty.
Obama said it will take time for Pakistan to assert control in border areas that have been "loosely governed" until now. He says Pakistani authorities are starting to do that, but that it is "not going to happen overnight."
He says U.S. and Afghan officials have been emphasizing to Pakistani leaders that the security of all three countries is "intertwined."
"There are moments when we speak frankly to each other, and that frankness will only contribute to the strength of the relationship," Karzai said.
Obama said the United States' main goal in Afghanistan remains to defeat the al Qaeda terror network and prevent it from again taking hold in the country from which the Sept. 11 attacks were planned. Karzai thanked Obama for expanding the war against insurgents trying to push him from power.
The two leaders pledged cooperation and respect after a turbulent period, although Obama alluded to at least one area where the two men may not agree. He said he looks forward to further discussion about how Karzai's government will reach out to militants for a possible political deal to end the war. Karzai wants America's blessing for faster outreach to militant leaders.
On the eve of a major military push into the Taliban home ground of Kandahar province, Obama said, "We are steadily making progress." He asserted that the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan are beginning to "reverse the Taliban's momentum."