By Sam Youngman - 05/10/10 09:33 PM EDT
The strategy President Barack Obama laid out in December for Afghanistan and Pakistan is “largely on track,” senior U.S. officials said Monday as they prepared for a series of crucial meetings with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry spoke confidently that the U.S. plan to train Afghan forces and eventually withdraw American troops was working.
The U.S. hopes to begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan by July 2011, and is developing the Afghan national army and police so that they can take over.
Polls show the Afghanistan war is increasingly unpopular in the U.S., with a majority of those surveyed in a recent poll by ABC and The Washington Post saying they do not think the war is worth fighting.
Karzai has been a problem at times in the White House effort to win political support for its Afghanistan mission with the U.S public and Congress. The Afghan leader has had a tempestuous relationship with the Obama White House from the start, and many in Congress remain wary of him.
Karzai landed in Washington on Monday and will take part in a series of meetings this week on the U.S.-Afghanistan mission, including a head-to-head summit with Obama on Wednesday.
That meeting comes weeks after Karzai offered a series of incendiary remarks that led some in the White House to suggest his invitation to Washington could be in jeopardy of being rescinded.
The two officials and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs sought to downplay those rifts and Karzai's comments, including accusations that the U.S. interfered in his reelection and that he might consider joining the Taliban.
Gibbs said Obama would not dwell on those remarks when he and Karzai meet on Wednesday, saying the “focus is on moving forward.”
“I'm not entirely sure that the president is going to be hugely focused on what was said six or eight weeks ago,” said Gibbs. Instead, he said, Obama would be focused on planning for parliamentary elections and taking steps over the next several months and years to make progress.
Eikenberry and McChrystal also sought to downplay any tension in Obama and Karzai's relationship, and said any bilateral relationship is going to be fraught with complications.
“As you know, every relationship, every bilateral relationship, especially one as close as we have with Afghanistan, they experience ups and downs,” Eikenberry said.
Eikenberry said Obama “has expressed his confidence in President Karzai and our work together.”
Eikenberry, who flew into Andrews Air Force Base with Karzai and his ministers, said Karzai expressed “high hopes” for the meetings in Washington during the flight.
“I think we're going to emerge [from the week's meetings] with even better alignment,” Eikenberry said.
Gibbs added that Obama's focus “is on a partnership that allows our troops to train Afghans — as I said, they’re the ultimate security solution, that we're able to establish a level, a base level of governance that will allow us to come home. That's what the focus will be.”
McChrystal laid out the complexities facing U.S. and civilian forces in the region as they seek to clear and hold areas of the country controlled by the Taliban while at the same time training and encouraging Afghan forces to take the lead.
McChrystal warned that that process will hit bumps on the road.
“This is a process that takes time. It will demand courage and resilience,” McChrystal said. “We will encounter increased violence as our combined security forces expand into Taliban-controlled areas. Increasingly, the momentum will shift to the Afghan forces. Over time, security responsibilities will transition to Afghans.
“Seeing clearly the challenges in front of us, I have confidence that our campaign plan will succeed,” he said.
Eikenberry said that Karzai and his deputies will discuss a host of issues with their U.S. counterparts, including how to accelerate “the strengthening of Afghan security and judicial institutions.”
They will also look at how to bring peace and security to the region, including by improving accountability of Afghan forces, improving the performance of the Afghan government and growing the Afghan economy in a sustainable way.
At the end of May, Karzai is planning to host a consultative peace jirga, an exchange between himself and the Afghan people about the way forward. And in July, officials say, Karzai will host a major international conference in Kabul.
By September, U.S. officials anticipate parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, which comes ahead of the annual U.S. review of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.