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World's best frenemies: Karzai, Obama set to discuss long-term ties

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai had harsh words for the U.S. during an exclusive interview with NBC's Atia Abawi.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Nabilla Achmadi should be a poster child for the United States intervention in Afghanistan: She attends high school and is a member of the the country’s cricket team, both of which would have been unthinkable under the Taliban.

Despite this, she has decidedly mixed view of the foreign soldiers in her country. 

"It is time for America to go," she told NBC News, then added: "But after they do, the Taliban will recapture Afghanistan and their cruel rule will begin again, so maybe the U.S. should stay here."


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What’s the first thing she feared after a US pullout? "That [as a woman] I won’t be able to play cricket again!"

Nabilla’s attitude speaks for many in Afghanistan who are weary of war and foreign soldiers’ boots on their land. But on the other hand, the specter of life under the emboldened and ultra-conservative Taliban and without the millions in foreign aid haunts them.  These competing emotions will hang over this week’s crucial one-on-one meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai in Washington. 

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Amid heightened tensions between the two countries, Obama and Karzai are set to discuss the future beyond 2014, when most foreign troops are set to withdraw from Afghanistan.

President Obama will host Karzai and his delegation at the White House for bilateral meetings on Friday, the White House press office annunced on Monday, adding that the president "looks forward to welcoming the Afghan delegation to Washington, and discussing our continued transition in Afghanistan, and our shared vision of an enduring partnership between the United States and Afghanistan."

"The stability of Afghanistan, of the entire region and even the national security of the United States depends very much on (the Obama-Karzai) relationship," said Omar Sharifi, director of the American Center for Afghanistan Studies. "If Afghanistan loses or damages its relationship with the U.S., the only ones who will benefit will be those responsible for 9/11 and who want our destruction."

Strained relationship
Despite more than a decade as allies — and a cost to America of more than 2,000 lives and $600 billion in treasure — U.S.-Afghan relations have not been this strained since the 2001 toppling of the Taliban.

In an interview last month with NBC News’ Atia Abawi, Karzai sharply criticized the United States, blaming American and NATO forces for some of the growing insecurity in his country.  

EXCLUSIVE: US, NATO behind 'insecurity' in Afghanistan, Karzai says

Obama and Karzai will set out to put some meat on the bones of a strategic partnership they agreed to last year.  At the time, they committed to an American presence in Afghanistan for at least 10 years beyond 2014.  

At the top of the list - according to a Pentagon spokesman — is deciding how many American troops will remain.  According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Obama is considering whether to keep a brigade of about 3,000 troops focused largely on hunting down al-Qaida and other militants, or going to a maximum of about 20,000 U.S. forces that would look after counter-terrorism and the training up Afghan soldiers. 

Obama is reportedly leaning towards a lighter footprint and a mission focused on killing or capturing terrorists. According to some Afghan analysts, Karzai prefers the maximum option because more American trainers would likely mean better Afghan recruits.  It would also take some of the glare off of American special forces and their despised intrusions on Afghan homes and civilians during controversial night raids.

Aref Karimi / AFP - Getty Images

More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.

The presidents will also have to grapple with how fast the remaining 68,000 American troops still in Afghanistan will be drawn-down before 2014.  Again, Obama reportedly wants to move faster than his generals. Karzai, meanwhile, wants a slower drawdown, as well as better weapons and equipment.

Neither side wants a repeat of what happened after the Soviet Army abruptly pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989 — the vacuum left behind then was filled by Islamic militants, warlords, civil war, and the birth of the Taliban.

ANALYSIS: Is peace really in the air in Afghanistan?

Another major sticking point is the fate American-built Bagram Prison, in particular 57 prisoners who have been acquitted in Afghan courts but are being held despite this, according to the Afghan presidency.

Obama could order U.S. troops  — as he did in Iraq — to leave Afghanistan precipitously if Obama and Karzai can’t resolve the biggest obstacle to their security agreement: Karzai has insisted that all U.S. soldiers remaining after 2014 be subject to Afghan justice. Obama, meanwhile, has called any violation of the US military’s immunity from Afghan law a deal breaker. Many analysts here think Karzai, in the end, has to cave in.

Watch Atia Abawi's full, exclusive interview with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in which he discusses the "growing perception" that insecurity in the region is caused by the United States and some of its allies who "promoted lawlessness" and "corruption" in Afghanistan.

Even with an announcement of a historic deal on this trip, a decision on U.S. troop levels and financial aid through 2024, there’s no guarantee that such a commitment would bring peace.  After all, the war has already killed an estimated 20,000 Afghan civilians and 10,000 Afghan security forces, according to the BBC. 

After 10 years of Karzai's rule, has life improved in Afghanistan?

Whatever the outcome of this week’s talks, many Afghans share Karzai’s obvious resentment, but still feel the United States’ should help.

"They have invaded our country, they should leave Afghanistan," said Sayed Nadeem, a shopkeeper in Kabul. "But they need to fix problems, first security, then economy and then the rebuilding of this nation."

Retired pharmacist Haji Mohammed Ishaq, 80, believes that all the presidential summits and nice words don’t really matter. "People are tired of war," he said. "We have fought amongst ourselves too much. I’m hopeful Afghans will now become brothers again."

Kiko Itasaka and Akbar Shinwari contributed to this report. 

 Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London currently ending an assignment in Kabul. He has covered Afghanistan since the 1980s. 

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