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.
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."
The McCain campaign statement noted, "Barack Obama says he wants a 'safe and responsible' withdrawal from Iraq, but is stubbornly adhering to an unconditional withdrawal that places politics above the advice of our military commanders, the success of our troops, and the security of the American people."
On Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was quoted in the German magazine Der Spiegel as embracing Obama's 16-month withdrawal timetable, causing a stir at the White House. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad contacted Maliki's office to express concern and seek clarification on the remarks, according to White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. Later in the day, a Maliki aide released a statement saying the remarks had been mistranslated and misunderstood, though without citing specifics. Der Spiegel issued a statement standing by the quotations.
The meeting with Karzai took place a few hours after Obama, Reed and Hagel met with U.S. troops at Camp Eggers, a heavily fortified U.S. base in the Afghan capital.
Karzai and Obama met over a traditional Afghan meal of rice, chicken and mutton at the presidential palace a little more than a week after Obama pointedly criticized Karzai's leadership in the face of deteriorating security conditions. In an interview with CNN, Obama said Karzai had "not gotten out of the bunker" to help the country develop.
Karzai's spokesman declined to say directly whether the two touched on the senator's recent remarks, but he said Obama's comment was not without merits.
"We didn't see that as a criticism per se because there is a degree of realism in that statement and that is the fact that while we are making significant progress in rebuilding our country, we are also facing a significant threat of terrorism that is imposed upon us and the Afghan people," Hamidzada said. "So the fact that we are spending a lot of our resources and energy fighting terrorism that is exported from the south is a reality."
The high-level meeting Sunday came as Afghan officials reported that eight Afghan police were killed and six wounded in a "friendly fire" incident involving NATO forces and Afghan police at an Afghan checkpoint in the western province of Farah. Provincial police chief Khalilulah Rahmani said the incident occurred around 1:30 a.m. on Sunday when Afghan police mistakenly fired on a NATO convoy in the district of Anar Dara. The eight police officers were killed after NATO forces called in an airstrike during the firefight.
NATO officials also reported Sunday that four civilians were accidentally killed in the eastern province of Paktika when NATO forces fired two mortar rounds at a suspected Taliban location. The bombs landed wide of their target by half a mile.
Civilian casualties and "friendly fire" incidents have been an issue of much contention inside Afghanistan. Karzai recently called for investigations into several NATO airstrikes that resulted in civilian casualties, including a July 6 bombing that killed 47 people in the eastern province of Nangahar.
Obama and the other senators visited Nangahar on Saturday, meeting with U.S. troops and the provincial governor in the city of Jalalabad.
Asked whether Karzai discussed civilian casualties from NATO operations, Hamidzada said only that the two men talked "broadly" about a range of issues.
Staff writer Dan Eggen in Crawford, Tex., contributed to this report.