- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2008

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (AP) - Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama met Saturday with officials of a region of Afghanistan that has been a hotbed of Taliban and al-Qaida activity, offering his support for reconstruction and security there and throughout the country, an official said.

The Illinois senator, undertaking a campaign-season tour of combat zones and foreign capitals, began his first-ever visit to Afghanistan as part of an official congressional delegation that landed in Kabul.

Obama and other members of Congress visited Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. military base in the country, to meet with top U.S. military leaders and troops, according to a U.S. military statement.

The delegation also met with troops at Jalalabad Air Field, in Nangarhar province. Jalalabad lies near the Tora Bora mountains where al-Qaida leaders fled and faced a U.S. bombardment during the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden escaped U.S. troops at that time and is believed to be in the region.

The Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants have continued to caused problems in Afghanistan’s east, especially near the border with Pakistan. Nangarhar’s governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, a no-nonsense, bullish former warlord, briefed Obama and other members of the delegation, according to Sherzai’s chief of staff.

“Barack Obama expressed support for Afghanistan and especially for Nangarhar province,” Massoud Ahmad Azizi said. “He said he will support reconstruction, development and security all over the country, especially in Nangarhar. He thanked Sherzai for good leadership and good administration of the province.”

In the presidential campaign against Republican rival John McCain, Obama has argued that the war in Afghanistan deserves more attention as well as troops. McCain has criticized Obama for his lack of time in the region, and Obama is also expected to stop in Iraq at some point during his tour.

En route to Afghanistan, Obama stopped Friday at Camp Arifjan, the main U.S. military base in Kuwait and a major gateway for U.S. soldiers moving into and out of Iraq.

Lt. Col. Bill Nutter, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Kuwait, said, “He talked to soldiers and constituents and met with senior military leadership.”

During the two-hour visit, Nutter said, the officers gave him an overview of operations. Obama shook hands, answered questions, posed for photos and played a little basketball during the visit.

Sultan Ahmad Baheen, spokesman for Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry, said Saturday that Obama would meet with President Hamid Karzai during his visit.

“I look forward to seeing what the situation on the ground is,” Obama told a pair of reporters who accompanied him to his departure from Andrews Air Force Base on Thursday. “I want to, obviously, talk to the commanders and get a sense both in Afghanistan and in Baghdad of, you know, what the most, their biggest concerns are, and I want to thank our troops for the heroic work that they’ve been doing.”

Underscoring the challenges in Afghanistan, authorities reported Saturday that a roadside bomb killed four policemen in the volatile south of the country where the Taliban-led insurgency is intensifying nearly seven years after a U.S.-led invasion ousted the militant movement from power.

Obama advocates ending the U.S. combat role in Iraq by withdrawing troops at the rate of one to two combat brigades a month. But he supports increasing the military commitment to Afghanistan, where the Taliban has been resurgent and Osama bin laden is believed to be hiding.

Obama recently chided Karzai and his government, saying it had “not gotten out of the bunker” and helped to organize the country or its political and security institutions.

Also on his itinerary later in the trip is a meeting with Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi leader. On the campaign trail, Obama has said one benefit of withdrawing U.S. troops is that it would pressure al-Maliki to shore up his government as well.

Nonetheless, he said he did not plan to reiterate those messages in person.

“I’m more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking, and I think it’s very important to recognize that I’m going over there as a U.S. senator,” he said. “We have one president at a time.”

The duration and details of Obama’s stay in Afghanistan have not been formally disclosed, and media access was limited.

Traveling with Obama were Sens. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island. The senators, both military veterans, have been mentioned as potential Obama vice presidential running mates, but Reed has said he’s not interested in the job.

In a speech this week, Obama said the war in Iraq was a distraction, unlike the fighting in Afghanistan.

“This is a war that we have to win,” he said. “I will send at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, and use this commitment to seek greater contributions _ with fewer restrictions _ from NATO allies.

“I will focus on training Afghan security forces and supporting an Afghan judiciary, with more resources and incentives for American officers who perform these missions.”

By contrast, his opposition to the war in Iraq _ and call for an end to the U.S. combat role _ helped him overcome his rivals in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Lately, his efforts to explain how he will use what he learns from U.S. commanders to refine his proposals have brought charges from Republicans and complaints from Democratic liberals that he seems to be shifting his Iraq policy toward the political center. But Obama maintains his basic goal of ending the U.S. combat role soon remains unchanged and that he’s always said the U.S. withdrawal must be done carefully.

Obama also arranged to visit Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and England, traveling aboard a jet chartered by his presidential campaign, before his return to the United States. The weeklong trip marks his only foreign excursion as a presidential candidate; McCain has visited Canada, Colombia and Mexico, in part to highlight Obama’s opposition to trade deals with those allies.

Few citizens in impoverished Afghanistan were aware of Obama’s unannounced visit, and few have been following the U.S. presidential race, being too busy eking out an existence amid soaring violence and with limited access to news media.

But some interviewed Saturday said they would welcome an Obama presidency if he could help their country end the fighting, corruption and poverty that have crippled it for so long.

“Obama is a good person,” said Abdul Basir, 40, a former army officer. “During his campaign I heard he was saying that if I become president I will withdraw the U.S. troops from Iraq and bring them to Afghanistan and I will attack on the terror center on other side of border (in Pakistan). It is very important and I appreciated that.”

___

Associated Press writers Glen Johnson in Washington and Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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