Correction to This Article
This article about Sen. Barack Obama's visit to Afghanistan gave an incorrect title for Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is Iraq's prime minister, not its president.

Obama Gets Look At Afghan War Zone

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama has embarked on a weeklong tour of the Middle East and Europe designed to deepen his foreign policy credentials, confront questions at home about his readiness to be commander in chief and signal the possibility of a new era in U.S. relations with the rest of the world.
[MAP: Jalalabad, Nangahar Province, Afghanistan]
By Candace Rondeaux and Dan Balz
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 20, 2008

KABUL, July 19 -- Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama got his first look at deteriorating conditions in war-torn Afghanistan on Saturday, meeting with U.S. military commanders and local officials and touring part of the country by helicopter on the first day of a highly anticipated visit abroad that drew a fresh rebuke from Republican rival John McCain.

Obama, traveling as part of an official congressional delegation, landed in the Afghan capital on Saturday morning under tight security amid a surge of Taliban activity in recent weeks. After a briefing at Bagram air base, he flew by helicopter to the northeastern city of Jalalabad in Nangahar province, where he met with U.S. soldiers and local leaders. From there, according to a U.S.-based aide, Obama set out by helicopter for a look at parts of eastern Afghanistan before returning to Kabul for a dinner with senior Afghan officials.

The presumptive Democratic nominee shied away from public comments as his trip began, belying the intense interest in the trip and its political ramifications. McCain used his new weekly radio address on Saturday to attack Obama's foreign policy credentials and judgment. But as McCain sparred with his rival, the Illinois senator received an unexpected boost from Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, who told the German magazine Der Spiegel that he looked favorably on Obama's call for a 16-month timetable for withdrawing most U.S. forces from Iraq.

Maliki's interview was published a day after White House officials announced that President Bush and the Iraqi leader had reached agreement on the need to set a "time horizon" for withdrawing U.S. troops, a significant shift in position by a president who long had resisted applying any semblance of a timeline on U.S. military involvement.

Iraq is expected to be part of the itinerary of Obama's trip, which also includes stops in Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain. The long-planned journey is designed to enhance Obama's foreign policy credentials and allay the concerns of some voters that he lacks the experience to serve as commander in chief while the country is engaged in two wars and a global campaign against terrorism.

For the past week, the two presidential candidates have engaged in a sharp debate over U.S. policy toward Iraq and its impact on an increasingly urgent situation in Afghanistan. McCain, showing he will not cede the foreign policy issue while Obama is on his trip, accused his rival in his radio address of inexperience, arrogance and even deceptiveness.

Obama, who was traveling with Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), called his advisers in the United States on Saturday evening from Kabul and, according to spokesman Robert Gibbs, described morale among U.S. forces as high but the situation as dire.

"He said that the deteriorating security situation is very, very real and that we've got a lot of work to do as it relates to that," Gibbs said in a telephone interview. "I think he heard and saw a lot of that today."

Security was so tight for the visit that most Afghan and U.S. officials in Kabul refused to discuss whom he was scheduled to meet, with some denying that Obama was even in the country hours after he had landed.

His visit to Jalalabad and the normally quiet Nangahar province came 12 days after at least 47 people were killed in a U.S.-led airstrike in the area that has fueled intense discussions about foreign military operations in Afghanistan. Afghan officials have said the majority of those killed in the bombing were women and children traveling in the area as part of a wedding party.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked insurgents have regrouped in eastern Afghanistan, especially near the Pakistani border. Nangahar's governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, a former warlord, briefed Obama and other members of the delegation about the situation there, according to Sherzai's chief of staff.

Obama's visit comes as the United States considers retooling its military strategy in the region to confront the mounting threat from Islamist insurgents operating in Pakistan's tribal areas near the Afghan border. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in the past week that he believes troop reductions in Iraq could be in the works, a development that would presumably allow the Pentagon to shift more soldiers and military resources to Afghanistan. The United States has about 140,000 troops in Iraq and 36,000 in Afghanistan as part of a NATO force there. NATO and U.S. forces have suffered significant losses in Afghanistan in recent months, and in June the number of U.S. soldiers killed there nearly equaled U.S. troop deaths in Iraq.

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