KABUL The new U.S. envoy to Afghanistan on Wednesday described Afghan President Hamid Karzai as a brave man who holds one of the world's most difficult jobs, strong praise that could signal a U.S. bid to reset an often tense and acrimonious relationship.
U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, speaking a few days after arriving in Kabul, said he had already been given a warm welcome by many senior Afghan officials.
"I have had no one question the value of the relationship, or even hint at it," Crocker told journalists at his first news conference in the post. "What they have said virtually without exception is ... they consider the relationship with the United States extremely important."
His predecessor was Karl Eikenberry, a former general widely known to have a difficult relationship with Karzai. Some diplomats and military officers complained of a U.S. political "vacuum" in Kabul while he was at the helm.
Weeks before he left, Eikenberry issued a thinly veiled warning to Karzai that his strong criticisms of the West were "hurtful and inappropriate" and could jeopardise troops and funding critical to the Afghan government's survival.
Relations have been strained by a string of problems, from Karzai's repeated criticism of Western military tactics to his fraught relationship with parliament and his handling of the collapse of Kabulbank, the country's largest private lender, with hundreds of millions of dollars of bad loans.
But Crocker, asked how he would characterise ties with Karzai, had only praise for the president, who he has known since he served a brief period in Kabul in 2002.
"I was only here for about 3 months but had intensive interaction with him during that time and developed considerable respect for his commitment, his courage and the clear signal he sent as an Afghan nationalist. He thinks in national terms," Crocker said.
"I continue to have very, very high regard for him. He has had arguably the toughest job in the world for the last 9 and a half years, and one of the most dangerous. He has stuck with it, I think he deserves our support; he has our support."
Crocker also repeated promises the United States did not seek permanent bases in Afghanistan, after a security handover to Afghan troops scheduled to finish by the end of 2014, although the military might stay to "advise and assist".
He said a strategic partnership currently under discussion would go far beyond security concerns.
"Both we and the Afghans envisage this as a very broad compact ... I think we're going to talk about educational cooperation, economic and commercial cooperation, cooperation in science and technology."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)