U.S. trying to smooth Afghan relations

KABUL — President Hamid Karzai got a VIP briefing at NATO headquarters and the top American diplomat in Kabul went out of his way to smooth U.S.-Afghan relations — signs that Washington is using a softer touch in dealing with the unpredictable Afghan leader.

The turnabout is a bid to ease the rancor of the past week that flared after Karzai, seeking to rally national support, accused the West of meddling in his nation. Karzai's strident comments, just days after President Obama visited Kabul, alleged the U.N. and the international community interfered in last year's fraud-tarnished presidential election in Afghanistan.

Karzai's backlash came at a time when 30,000 U.S. reinforcements are streaming into the country to ramp up the war against Taliban insurgents. The Obama administration needs Karzai's support during an upcoming military offensive to clear the Taliban from Kandahar, the biggest city in southern Afghanistan and the Islamist movement's birthplace.

"We occasionally have disagreements between us... how can it be otherwise?" the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, said in a footnote to a news conference Saturday in the capital announcing $20 million in U.S. assistance to bolster local governance.

Across town at NATO headquarters, Karzai joked with U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, during a security briefing with senior military officials and members of the Afghan Cabinet. Karzai talked about his aspirations for a May conference to develop a national consensus for reaching peace with the Taliban, heard a security update on Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan and had lunch with top officials from the international coalition.

Tension between Karzai and the U.S. was running high even before Obama made his first presidential visit to Afghanistan.

En route to Kabul on March 28, Obama's national security adviser, Gen. Jim Jones, told reporters that the White House needed to make the Afghan president understand that there are certain things that have not been paid attention to "almost since Day 1." He cited Western pressure for Karzai to pick government officials based on credentials, not cronyism, battle corruption, and fight drug trafficking, which helps to finance the insurgency.

In recent days, Jones changed his tone. He told reporters on Friday that U.S.-Afghan relations were on an "encouraging glide path." He didn't elaborate, but said that Karzai and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a "clarifying conversation" and perhaps it was time to calm the rhetoric in Kabul and Washington.