For the past year, Nato generals have talked of a military offensive in Kandahar as the key to resolving the war in Afghanistan. Last week, the preliminaries began with a charm offensive in Washington. In a startling shift in policy, the US administration schmoozed and flattered Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, whose invitation it had threatened to withdraw after he became exasperated with America and warned that he might join the Taliban. Instead, he was feted with lavish dinners at President Barack Obamas guesthouse and as the guest of Joe Biden, the vice-president, who stormed out of a meal with Karzai last year. Congressmen were urged not to criticise Karzai and he even went for a walk in the park with Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state an activity he misses when locked in his palace in Kabul. The favours, derided by some as a be nice to Karzai week, were also extended to his delegation of 50 ministers and advisers. The decision to switch from haranguing to sweet-talking Karzai followed warnings from increasingly desperate US officials and military chiefs that there was no chance of success in Kandahar with Washington and Kabul at loggerheads. We were staring at the abyss, said one senior official. A report released by the Pentagon last month showed that the situation was deteriorating. General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, who has built good relations with Karzai, feared that the war of words was playing into the hands of the Taliban. The insurgents have spread terror through Kandahar, with men on motorbikes shooting those who cooperate with the Afghan government. There is a recognition that the administration strategy was counterproductive, said Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan. Some officials were treating Karzai as if he were part of the Bush administration who had been left behind, which was a mistake. Karzai also recognises that he needs the US coalition to succeed and maybe he had gone too far. Unlike George W Bush, who held weekly video conferences with Karzai, Obama barely talked to him. Some Obama aides made it clear they would like someone else to win the presidential elections last summer unwise given that Karzai was unlikely to lose. The American presidents first visit to Kabul last month left the impression he had travelled 26 hours to lecture Karzai on corruption. Obama and Karzai may not suddenly have discovered a mutual fondness. Barack Obama cant stand Karzai, wrote Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist. But they have now realised they need each other. Theres no point in publicly haranguing Karzai and saying 'you do this or else when there is no 'or else, said one official. Obama blinked first, assuring Karzai that there would be no more talk of working through local administrations to bypass him. He spoke movingly of sharing Karzais concern about civilian casualties and agreed to hand over detention centres to Afghan control. To assuage Karzais worries about July 2011, when Obama has said he wants to start withdrawing troops, the US president signalled a long-term commitment by holding out the prospect of making Afghanistan a strategic partner, as it recently did Pakistan. They also discussed Kandahar, which Karzai called a process rather than an operation, and which will now be conducted in what McChrystal described as a unique manner. Its not a situation where a large military offensive will be appropriate, he said in a briefing. Kandahar is not under Taliban control we dont need to take it back or occupy the city. But its menaced. Areas outside are heavily contested. The US brigade that will lead the assault began deploying to Afghanistan earlier this month. Hundreds of soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division a unit that parachuted into Normandy on D-Day are arriving in bases north of Kandahar. But McChrystal says it may take all year before any difference is noticeable in Kandahar: As we increase our forces it will create better security but it will take months. Not until August will he have the full extra 30,000 forces agreed by Obama. These will focus on Taliban strongholds outside Kandahar such as Arghandab, Panjwayi and Daman. To stop the Taliban launching raids inside the city, a ring of outposts will be created, which will be manned by Afghans. Kandahar may be the spiritual heartland of the Taliban, but it is also Karzais hometown and he has insisted that nothing will be done without the consent of local people. Even the contentious issue of his half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai a powerful figure in Kandahar who is alleged to be a drug smuggler was apparently discussed amicably. The Afghan president told Obama he had not seen any evidence and could not fire him even if he wanted to because he is an elected official. Its resolved, he said afterwards. Karzai also visited wounded US troops and went to Arlington military cemetery to pay his respects. The timing of Karzais visit was fortuitous. One of his main complaints is that the US has been too easy on Pakistan, where the Afghan Taliban maintain a safe haven. But the attempt by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American, to bomb Times Square in New York has prompted new pressure on the Pakistan government to move into the militant stronghold of North Waziristan. They are realising what Pakistan is, said a senior Afghan official. Karzai told Obama that Afghanistan had arrested 16 suicide bombers from Pakistan, two of whom are apparently army captains. (The Sunday Times )