President Obama made an surprise stop in Afghanistan today, his first visit to the war zone since moving into the White House. The one-day visit, which lasted a total of about 6 hours, included talks with Afghan president Hamid Karzai and his government, which the U.S. sees as key to completing its mission in Afghanistan on on the timetable Obama outlined in December. While on the ground, Obama also addressed U.S. troops and met with American commanders.
Air Force One touched down at Bagram Air Force Base overnight, after leaving Andrews Air Force base under cover of secrecy on Saturday. Accompanying Obama on the trip were members of Obama’s national security team, including members of the White House national security team, including National Security Adviser Jim Jones. The White House said the trip had been planned since Thursday, but told reporters the flight was unannounced “for security reasons.”
Obama and Afghan president Hamid Karzai appeared briefly before reporters in Kabul, where the Obama announced that Karzai will visit the U.S. for more talks next month.In Afghanistan today, Obama met with Karzai one-on-one for about a half hour. The White House described the talks as “very productive” and “businesslike,” and included discussions of about “governance, merit-based appointments of Afghan officials, and corruption,” according to reports from the ground.
After the meeting, Karzai told reporters that he was grateful for the continued American efforts in Afghanistan. Obama said he was “encouraged by the progress that’s been made” by Karzai’s regime.
But it was clear from reports that one of the American goals on the trip was to push Karzai’s government to do better. After Obama and Karzai met, the American delegation — which also included U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eichenberry — met with members of the Afghan cabinet to discuss the future, which Americans hope will include the scaling up of Afghan security forces and the scaling down of American involvement.
Jones told reporters on the ground in Afghanistan before the one-on-one meeting that Obama intended to take a hard line with Karzai and “make him understand that in his second term, there are certain things that have been not paid attention to, almost since day one.”
After the day’s meetings were concluded, Jones said corruption remained a serious concern. “The president [Karzai] needs to be seized with how important that is,” Jones said.
He added that meetings like today’s are key toward securing Obama’s goal of a major scaledown of American forces in Afghanistan starting in 2011. Since Obama stepped up the American commitment to the conflict late last year, causalities have risen on both sides as U.S. and Afghan forces have engaged with a resurgent Taliban seeking to retake control of the country.
Jones said that victory in Afghanistan is incumbent upon open lines of communication with the Afghan regime.
“This is something that simply has to be done,” Jones said. “We have to have the strategic rapport with President Karzai and his cabinet to understand how we are going to succeed this year in reversing the momentum the Taliban and the opposition forces have been able to establish since 2006.”
Obama and the White House has said that without a strong partner in Kabul, victory in the war is impossible. Karzai was first installed as head of the Afghan with the support of the U.S.. Since that time, allegations of corruption and electoral fraud have soured the relationship between the Kabul government and the Americans charged with keeping it in power. The talks are part of U.S. strategy to improve Karzai’s administration, which it has accepted as the duly elected government of the country.
After meeting with the Afghans, Obama turned his attention to the thousands of American soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan. He met with the man in charge of them, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and addressed a hanger full of troops at Bagram Air Base. Afterwards, he toured the base briefly and met with wounded service members at an on-base clinic.
Watch Obama’s Bagram speech here:
Though on the one hand the trip showed the difficulty the U.S. still faces in finding a functioning local partner in Afghanistan, the trip could also be viewed as something of a victory lap for Obama, who just saw his major domestic policy goal, health care reform, signed into law. Though the reform plan remains controversial, polls have shown that the public has a good impression of Obama’s efforts to secure it.
Obama’s plans for the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, controversial when he announced them in December, is showing similar results for the president. A CNN poll released last week showed that public opposition to the war has dropped, while support for Obama’s handling of the conflict have risen dramatically.
Note: This post has been updated.