Obama: Withdrawal from Afghanistan on track

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President Barack Obama acknowledged setbacks and tensions in the US relationship with Afghanistan and its wartime leader today, 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 US 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.

Obama said the United States' main goal in Afghanistan remains to defeat the al-Qa'ida terror network and prevent it from again taking hold in the country from which the September 11 attacks were planned. Karzai thanked Obama for expanding the war against insurgents trying to push him from power.

Obama mentioned Pakistan several times, and said its security and Afghanistan's are linked. Pakistan recognises it must root out militants because such groups threaten the Pakistani state as well as US and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, he said.

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."

He said the United States has taken "extraordinary measures" to avoid civilian casualties, a nod to Karzai's loud complaints last year that US air strikes were killing innocents and making enemies of those who might be friends.

Obama said US efforts to protect Afghans will continue.

"After all it's the Afghan people we are working to protect form the Taliban," Obama said, declaring that the insurgency kills far more civilians than the foreign forces or Afghan security services.

Karzai said the two leaders agreed on measures to protect civilians.