May 10th, 2010
05:31 PM ET

Top U.S. officials in Afghanistan: Progress slow but steady

[Updated at 5:25 p.m.]  One of main "deliverables" Afghan President Hamid Karzai is looking for, according to a senior State Department official is a commitment by the United States that it will be engaged with Afghanistan beyond July of next year, the date that President Obama has laid out for U.S. troops to begin to withdraw.

"He wants to know the United States is with Afghanistan beyond the July 2011 date and beyond the core goals," the official said. "To really lock in U.S. national security interests means Afghanistan can't go back. Allowing it to be undone is not in our interests or in the interests of the people of Afghanistan. That is the thing he wants us to explain, that the United States is committed to the long term."The official said the question involves civilian and security assistance after troops withdraw.

"We are seriously looking at the strategic partnership, not just the dynamic of the insurgency but also Afghanistan's future role in the region as a source of stability," the official said.

Karzai is also looking for support for his political efforts in Afghanistan, including political integration of members of the Taliban and other insurgents in advance of an Afghan "peace jirga," or assembly of tribes, later this month, the official said.

"We support the intention; the problem is that this is a complex and unpredictable process and we don't know which way it will go," the official said. "He doesn't have a big program; there is no negotiating team yet. We are just starting to think about these political issues. When we say we want to support Afghan-led integration, we want to help them shape how it looks like. We will support a viable process - which means he has to have one."

- CNN's Elise Labott contributed to this story

[Posted at 2:34 p.m.] The top two U.S. officials in Afghanistan said slow but steady progress continues toward the goals of securing areas in the south now under Taliban control and strengthening Afghan security forces.

At a White House news conference ahead of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington this week, the leader of U.S.-led military forces in Afghanistan and the U.S. ambassador to that country acknowledged challenges to the eventual goal of turning over security to the Afghans.

"We will encounter increased violence as our combined security forces expand into Taliban-controlled areas," said Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the allied military leader.

Ambassador Karl Eikenberry noted there have been "ups and downs" in the bilateral relationship with Karzai.

Eikenberry said he expects the United States and Afghanistan "to be able to work our way through difficulties and come back together and still find ourselves well-aligned" as a result of Karzai's Washington visit for talks with President Barack Obama.

The visit comes as questions arise about the timing of a planned U.S.-led military offensive on the Kandahar area that is the spiritual center of the Taliban.

McChrystal offered no specifics on when the offensive might start, but said securing control of the region is a goal of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

"Our strategic priority is the development of the Afghan national army and police," he said, adding that "much work lies ahead."

At the same time, McChrystal said, the operational priority is securing the southern area including Kandahar. He noted operations started expanding into the Helmand River valley 10 months ago, and increased troops ordered by Obama to bolster the effort started arriving in February.

McChrystal called the Kandahar region "uniquely complex" and said it will require "unique solutions."

"Our efforts in Afghanistan are ultimately about changing the perceptions of people," he said, adding that Afghans "believe more what they see than what they hear."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who organized the news conference with McChrystal and Eikenberry, said the comments by the two officials show that "we are making steady but slow progress."

"We didn't think this was going to happen overnight," Gibbs said. "We are making up for an effort that ... I think the president believes was inadequately resourced in the past."

He added he was unaware of any slippage in the expected start of the Kandahar offensive over the summer, perhaps in June.

"You are not going to see something that you might think of as a traditional military exercise," he said. "This is going to take quite some time. ... There won't be some D-Day like moment."

Eikenberry reiterated conditions first expressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for working with the Taliban on a possible peaceful transition in Afghanistan.

"They have to renounce the use of violence, cut all ties to al Qaeda, and demonstrate respect for the Afghan constitution - including respect for the rights in that constitution," he said.

Asked if Karzai is a dependable partner for the United States, Eikenberry responded that he is the elected president of a close friend and ally.

At the same time, he said Karzai's government must improve transparency and accountability, and that those issues will be discussed this week.

"There are promising signs," he said, adding that ultimately the Afghan people have to be satisfied.

In a statement Monday on Karzai's visit, the Taliban criticized him for what it called bowing to U.S. pressure.

"Indeed it is not a positive visit; it is a new commitment to his master Obama and they will review the strategic goals in the area for more hardship, killing of Muslims and looting of their resources," the statement said.

Also Monday, a senior State Department official said the central focus of Karzai's visit is for the United States and Afghanistan to launch a dialogue on the bilateral relationship between the two countries beyond the presence of U.S. troops, and to lay the groundwork for a long-term partnership.

"The main thing is to start thinking about getting out of the narrow mentality of the next big offensive and looking at the relationship over the long term," said the official, who spoke on condition of not being identified by name because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy. "What do we want our relationship to be about?"

Photo caption: U.S. military commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal (right) and Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry (center) brief the media prior to the visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Washington, D.C., on Monday.  White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs looks on.

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