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.
Hours after Obama's arrival, a NATO soldier was killed when a supply convoy struck a roadside bomb in the southern province of Kandahar, the cradle of the Taliban movement. NATO officials in Kabul did not release the name or the nationality of the soldier. In the nearby southern province of Zabol, NATO soldiers killed nine Taliban insurgents after an attack on another supply convoy, the Associated Press reported.
Obama has said he wants to send two additional U.S. combat brigades, about 7,000 troops, to Afghanistan. He has advocated reducing the U.S. force in Iraq so that troops can be redeployed to Afghanistan to quell the rising threat there.
Before his departure, Obama had accused McCain of waffling on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, criticizing the decorated Vietnam War veteran for voting to go to war in Iraq. He called the loss of focus on the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan a "grave mistake."
On Saturday, McCain said he, too, supported sending more troops to Afghanistan, from both NATO and the United States. But he said he also favors strategic and organizational changes in the mission there, patterned more directly on what has worked in Iraq. He also pledged to appoint a White House-based official with principal responsibility to oversee Afghanistan policy.
The Arizona senator offered a stinging critique of Obama for laying out his withdrawal strategy in Iraq before even embarking on his upcoming fact-finding visit to the war zone. "Apparently, he's confident enough that he won't find any facts that might change his opinion or alter his strategy," McCain said. "Remarkable."
He also cited his experience in the military and in Congress to draw a contrast with Obama's far more limited exposure to national security issues. "In a time of war, the commander in chief's job doesn't get a learning curve," he said. "And if I have that privilege, I will bring to the job many years of military and political experience."
In his Spiegel interview, Maliki said he preferred to see U.S. troops leave "as soon as possible" and then added: "U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right time frame for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes."
Maliki, who will soon meet with Obama, quickly noted that he was not endorsing the presumptive Democratic nominee's candidacy, saying that was a decision for voters in the United States. But he implicitly criticized McCain, who has opposed such timetables, by saying that any effort to prolong the U.S. mission "would cause problems."
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh later issued a statement saying that Maliki's remarks had been misinterpreted and mistranslated, adding that the Spiegel article did not accurately convey his view of Obama's timetable. Dabbagh's statement did not elaborate on the prime minister's position.
Obama had no comment on the interview, but according to foreign policy adviser Susan Rice, he "welcomes Prime Minister Maliki's support for a 16 month timeline." She called Maliki's comments "an important opportunity to transition to Iraqi responsibility, while restoring our military and increasing our commitment to finish the fight in Afghanistan."
McCain senior foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann offered a different interpretation of Maliki's comments. "The difference between John McCain and Barack Obama is that Barack Obama advocates an unconditional withdrawal that ignores the facts on the ground and the advice of our top military commanders," he said. "John McCain believes withdrawal must be based on conditions on the ground. Prime Minister Maliki has repeatedly affirmed the same view, and did so again today.
Obama is expected to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday, but a number of local politicians seized the opportunity provided by the visit to jump into the U.S. presidential campaign. On Saturday, leaders of the United National Front of Afghanistan, an agglomeration of 18 political parties led by former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, vigorously endorsed Obama's candidacy.
Rabbani, the conservative Islamist leader of the Jamiat-i-Islami party who was overthrown by the Taliban in 1996, has been critical of the corruption that has spread through the Afghan government since Karzai came to power in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban. Rabbani's party has been equally critical of the Bush administration's policy in the country. The party has given cautious support to Obama's call to put more Western troops on the ground while pushing for more humanitarian aid and development assistance.
Some Afghan politicians, however, reserved judgment. Abdul Jabbar Sabit, a former attorney general who was fired by Karzai in the past week after declaring his run for the Afghan presidency, said he is impressed by both Obama and McCain. A onetime adviser to Taliban leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Sabit said he agreed with Obama's insistence that the United States increase the number of troops in Afghanistan.
But he said he had met McCain several times and found him to be an equally compelling candidate.
"I hope the American people get someone who will listen. As an Afghan, I'm grateful to the Americans for coming such a long way to fight corruption and to fight terrorism here," Sabit said. "They've shed their blood to make Afghanistan safer."
Balz reported from Chicago. Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.