WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama signaled Wednesday that, despite his earlier hesitation, he may embrace a plan by his Afghan counterpart 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, straining the partnership between the two governments.
“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.
But they said tensions were bound to recur and that difficult work remained in addressing one another’s concerns, such as corruption in the Afghan government and civilian casualties resulting from U.S.-led military action.
Only last month, Karzai warned he might join the Taliban insurgency rather than yield to foreign pressure to reform his government. Karzai 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 seemed determined to set aside suspicions. His tone was respectful, and he repeatedly nodded in agreement as Obama spoke.
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.
Karzai has used the visit to get concessions of his own. He wants the U.S.-led coalition forces to curb the rate of 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 also is 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. While the Afghan war is already unpopular at home, many Americans are likely to be further dismayed at the thought of making amends with figures who have killed hundreds of U.S. troops.
After returning to Afghanistan, Karzai plans to convene a “jirga,” or national assembly, that will 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 have disarmed and renounced violence. But they refused to publicly discuss the notion of reconciliation with top Taliban leaders.
U.S. officials have worried Karzai might cut secret deals with militant leaders, including some with a history of war crimes and human rights abuses.
At the news conference, Obama showed he was open to the plan – a significant step for an administration that has been divided internally over the issue. Obama 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-Qaida 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, he said.