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Obama, Karzai Share a 'Working Lunch'

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.

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By Candace Rondeaux and Dan Balz
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 21, 2008

KABUL, July 20 -- Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama met here Sunday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and later reiterated his call for additional U.S. forces to deal with conditions in Afghanistan that he described as "precarious and urgent," capping a two-day tour as casualties continued to mount from violence in the war-torn country.

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Obama joined Karzai for a "working lunch," marking the first meeting for the Afghan president and the presumptive Democratic nominee. Obama's colleagues in the congressional delegation visiting Afghanistan, Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), were also at the lunch, said Humayun Hamidzada, Karzai's chief spokesman. Hamidzada said the heads of Afghanistan's ministries of defense and foreign affairs, and Karzai's national security adviser, also attended the nearly two-hour meeting.

Obama, interviewed in Afghanistan for CBS's "Face the Nation," called Afghanistan the "central front on our battle against terrorism." He said the Iraq war has distracted attention away from this critical battlefront and that it is time to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq and shifting more military resources into Afghanistan.

"If we wait until the next administration, it could be a year before we get those additional troops on the ground here in Afghanistan, and I think that would be a mistake," he said. "I think the situation is getting urgent enough that we've got to start doing something now."

Obama also said that the United States should press neighboring Pakistan harder to help eliminate the terrorist sanctuaries and training camps along the border that are fueling the strength of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. "I think that message has not been sent," he said in implicit criticism of the current administration.

Obama's visit to Afghanistan marked the first leg of a foreign tour that will take him to Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain between now and the end of the week. From Afghanistan, Obama flew to Kuwait. The state news agency KUNA reported that he met with the Gulf Arab state's emir, Sabah Ahmad al-Sabah. Obama was expected to continue on to Iraq for meetings with U.S. and Iraqi officials and to speak with U.S. military personnel on Monday.

In a statement issued after the meeting with Karzai, Obama, Hagel and Reed said their trip is aimed at assessing whether the United States has the right strategy and resources to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. "Our message to the Afghan government is this: We want a strong partnership based on 'more for more' -- more resources from the United States and NATO, and more action from the Afghan government to improve the lives of the Afghan people," they said.

Karzai and the three U.S. politicians discussed topics including education, health care and the state of the Afghan National Army and Afghan national police. "The discussions focused on the significant progress that we've made but also on the unmet challenges we still have ahead of us," Hamidzada said. "The discussions also focused on the difficulties we're facing, the difficult challenges of the fight against corruption, counternarcotics and also the continuing threat of terrorism and fundamentalism not just threatening the way of life in Afghanistan but also in the region."

Obama has made the U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan a central plank in his campaign platform, calling for 7,000 additional troops to be sent to the country as part of an overall drawdown in the number in Iraq. He has said that, if elected, he would remove combat forces from Iraq over a 16-month period and has repeatedly called for more troops and more resources in Afghanistan to fight the mounting threat from a Taliban resurgence and al-Qaeda.

"Losing is not an option when it comes to al-Qaeda, and it never has been," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation," "and that's why the fact that we engaged in a war of choice when we were not yet finished with that task was such a mistake."

The senator from Illinois and his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), have sparred intensely over the progress in both wars and how best to reshape U.S. military missions. That debate continued Sunday on the morning talk shows and elsewhere. McCain's campaign issued a statement highlighting comments from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, raising doubts about the wisdom of removing combat forces from Iraq over the next two years, as Obama has advocated.

"I think the consequences could be very dangerous," Mullen said on "Fox News Sunday." "I'm convinced at this point in time that coming -- making reductions based on conditions on the ground are very important."

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