- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2010

UPDATED:

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — President Obama told Afghan leaders on Sunday to do more to rein in rampant corruption and improve their government as he made an unannounced visit to the capital for a firsthand look at the 8-year-old war he inherited and dramatically escalated.

After a brief meeting with President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Obama praised recent steps in the military campaign against insurgents but said Afghans needed to see conditions on the ground get better.

“Progress will continue to be made, but we also want to make progress on the civilian front,” Mr. Obama said, referring to anti-corruption efforts, good governance and adherence to the rule of law.

“All of these things end up resulting in an Afghanistan that is more prosperous and more secure,” Mr. Obama said. He invited Mr. Karzai to visit Washington on May 12, the White House said.

Mr. Karzai promised that his country “would move forward into the future” to eventually take over its own security, and he thanked Mr. Obama for the American intervention in his country.

The trip, its secrecy forced by security concerns, was an extraordinary capstone to a momentous week in Mr. Obama’s presidency. He achieved the most ambitious domestic policy initiative in decades with a historic health care overhaul and scored his first major foreign policy achievement with a significant new arms control treaty with Russia.

Mr. Obama landed in Afghanistan for a stay of just a few hours, all in darkness, after an overnight flight from Washington. He flew by helicopter from Bagram Air Field to the capital, where Mr. Karzai greeted him at the palace. It was Mr. Obama’s second stop in a war zone as commander in chief, coming about a year after a similarly secretive trip to Iraq.

The trip was intended to let Mr. Obama tell Mr. Karzai that he must deal with corruption and cut the flow of money from poppy production and drug trafficking, which is sustaining the insurgency. The United States also wants Mr. Karzai to halt cronyism and rewards for warlords in government hiring and to create an effective, credible judicial system.

The White House insisted that Mr. Karzai’s Cabinet participate in most of the meetings with Mr. Obama. The Cabinet includes a number of ministers favored by the United States, including the heads of finance, interior and defense, whom the Obama administration wants to empower as a way of reducing the influence of presidential cronies. Some talented Afghan administrators have complained that Mr. Karzai marginalized them in an attempt to solidify his powers

Both of Mr. Karzai’s vice presidents are former warlords whose forces allegedly killed thousands of people in the civil war of the 1990s that paved the way for the rise of the Taliban.

In December, Mr. Obama ordered 30,000 additional forces into the fight against the Taliban, which lost control of the country when the United States invaded in 2001. Those new U.S. troops are still arriving, and most are expected to be in place by summer, for a full force of roughly 100,000 U.S. troops. About 34,000 U.S. troops were stationed in the country when Mr. Obama took office.

The trip came just two days after a threatening new audio message from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, believed to be hiding along the ungoverned border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The White House made no advance announcement of the visit, which officials said the president long had desired but had been delayed by weather and other logistical obstacles. Initially, the White House said Mr. Karzai had been informed of Mr. Obama’s impending visit just an hour before his arrival, but Mr. Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said later that the Afghan government was told about the trip on Thursday.

Mr. Obama went on Friday afternoon to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., from which unnoticed departures are easier because of its secluded mountain location. The small contingent of White House aides and media allowed on the trip were sworn to secrecy.

The president’s plane landed under a clear sky, with only a few wispy clouds and an almost full moon. Mr. Obama was greeted by the American ambassador, Karl Eikenberry. No flash photography was allowed while his arrival was kept secret.

It was Obama’s second visit to Afghanistan: The first was in 2008 when, as a presidential candidate and U.S. senator, he joined an official congressional delegation.

In addition to talks with Afghan leaders, Mr. Obama planned to meet with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander, and speak with American troops.

At least 945 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to an Associated Press count. The number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan roughly has doubled in the first three months of 2010 compared with the similar period last year as Washington has added tens of thousands of additional soldiers to reverse the Taliban’s momentum.

The war is unpopular with a majority of Americans, especially progressives in the base of Mr. Obama’s Democratic Party. This was reflected in Mr. Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy: He combined the large buildup — his second to the Afghanistan force in less than a year as president — with a call to start bringing troops home in July 2011, just a year after the full contingent is in place.

Lately, Mr. Obama’s approval ratings on his handling of Afghanistan have ticked up, to 57 percent in a March AP-GfK poll, from 49 percent in January. But the challenge ahead is daunting: in justifying his escalation with clear progress against the Taliban, and in building up and training Afghan army and police forces so they can begin taking over security responsibilities.

Last month, a major offensive was launched to retake the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Helmand province. With fighting still raging across Afghanistan, and any successes still fragile and reversible, the war is not yet considered at a turning point. The key part of Mr. Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan — turning ordinary Afghans away from the Taliban by bringing in development and installing effective government — barely has begun.

The next big military operation for U.S. and NATO troops is being planned for Kandahar, the city that’s the spiritual home of the Taliban.

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