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.