- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2010

In his first visit to the warn-torn country since becoming commander-in-chief, President Obama on Sunday made a stealthy evening trip to Afghanistan, where he pushed President Hamid Karzai to fight corruption and warned that U.S. security will be threatened if the Taliban is allowed to retake the country.

Mr. Obama spoke to troops gathered at Bagram Air Base after a meeting with Mr. Karzai at the presidential palace in which he urged the Afghan leader to step up efforts to combat corruption and drug trafficking. But he also praised strides the country has made on security and civilian services like electricity.

“Your services are absolutely necessary, absolutely essential to America’s safety and security,” Mr. Obama, dressed in a bomber jacket, told the crowd of 2,500 U.S. service members. “If this region slides backwards, if the Taliban retakes this country and al Qaeda can operate with impunity, then more American lives will be at stake. The Afghan people will lose their chance at progress and prosperity. And the world will be significantly less secure.”

Mr. Obama emphasized that “we did not choose this war. This is not an act of America wanting to expand its influence, America wanting to meddle in somebody else’s business - we were attacked viciously on 9/11.”

After an early-week victory with passage of the Democrats’ health care overhaul, Mr. Obama quickly pivoted to international affairs with his announcement Friday of the most significant arms reduction treaty in two decades involving the U.S. and Russia. His surprise visit Sunday to Kabul, a 12-hour flight from Washington, marked the first time Mr. Obama has surveyed the front lines in the 8 1/2-year-old war since he ordered a surge of 30,000 more troops.

The trip, kept secret for security reasons, comes roughly one year after Mr. Obama made a similar surprise visit to Iraq in his first stop in a war zone as president.

Saying he has “no greater honor than serving as your commander-in-chief,” Mr. Obama assured troops he would make sure they have the resources they need to complete their mission.

“I will never send you into harm’s way unless it’s absolutely necessary. I anguish in thinking about the sacrifices that so many of you make,” he said.

And despite the biting partisanship of the recent health care debate, Mr. Obama stressed that both parties are united in their support of the military.

“I want you to understand this, there’s no daylight when it comes to support of all of you,” he said. “There’s no daylight when it comes to supporting our troops. That brings us together. We are all incredibly proud.”

Mr. Obama had promised to turn U.S. attention back to Aghanistan when he took office, saying the U.S. had focused on Iraq at the expense of the Afghan war, where rural provinces are still besieged by Taliban insurgents.

And in one of the biggest decisions of his young presidency, Mr. Obama in December bucked some lawmakers in his own party and called for a surge in U.S. forces in Afghanistan, bringing the total number of troops to 100,000. At the same time, he said America would start withdrawing soldiers in 2011.

According to an Associated Press tally, 945 members of the U.S. military have died since the 2001 invasion. Americans remain divided on the war effort. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Friday showed 44 percent saying things are going well, with 43 percent saying they are going poorly. At the same time, that’s a 23-point jump in optimism since November, CNN said.

Western confidence in Mr. Karzai was undermined by a messy presidential election last year. After the country’s independent election watchdog said more than a million ballots cast were fraudulent, Mr. Karzai issued a decree taking control of the five-member elections panel.

In addition to meeting with Afghan leaders, Mr. Obama met with the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, and U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry. He was accompanied by several White House aides, including National Security Adviser James L. Jones and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Mr. Karzai plans to visit the U.S. in May at the request of Mr. Obama.

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