By Joshua Partlow and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 29, 2010; A01
KABUL -- In his first visit as commander in chief to the war zone he has remade, President Obama on Sunday pushed for greater cooperation from the government of his Afghan counterpart, a stagnant and corruption-laced administration that poses perhaps the biggest threat to U.S. success against the Taliban insurgency.
Obama's tone in brief public remarks alongside President Hamid Karzai was solemn, and he chose not to praise the Afghan leader. While U.S. officials have been encouraged by military advances in recent months, Obama said, "we also want to continue to make progress on the civilian process."
Obama's national security adviser, James L. Jones, made the point in blunter terms. He said Obama wanted Karzai to understand "that in his second term, there are certain things that have not been paid attention to, almost since Day One."
Karzai promised in his inaugural address four months ago to fight corruption and improve governance, but U.S. officials say they have seen little concrete change at a time when they are desperate to present a credible alternative to Taliban rule. Many think the fate of Obama's troop buildup -- he has ordered 50,000 new troops to Afghanistan since taking office -- hinges in large part on the ability of the Afghan government to provide services after soldiers have pushed out insurgents.
Obama's first look at Afghanistan as president was brief and in darkness. He arrived after dusk at Bagram air base, met with Afghan and U.S. officials at the presidential palace in Kabul, then spoke to a cheering crowd of U.S. soldiers back at Bagram before flying out of the country before dawn. The six-hour tour, cloaked in secrecy to ensure security, dispatched with much of the customary pomp of a state visit. Karzai learned of Obama's arrival just three days before Air Force One touched down, according to the White House.
The visit marks a progression from Obama's biggest domestic policy success to his most pressing foreign policy challenge, and comes amid criticism that he has been too consumed by health-care reform to pay sufficient attention to the war he has escalated. Unlike health care, which became a bitterly partisan issue, Obama's management of the Afghanistan war has earned him Republican backing. A new Washington Post poll found that Afghanistan is one of Obama's strongest issues, the only one for which he earned majority approval. Overall, 53 percent of those polled approve of the way Obama is dealing with the situation in Afghanistan, despite a U.S. death toll that has roughly doubled the first three months of the year compared with the corresponding period last year.
The United States has been trying to persuade Karzai to appoint competent government officials, address rampant theft and extortion, and fight opium trafficking, which fuels the insurgency. Karzai, who won a fraud-marred election in August, has still not selected a full cabinet, and the central government is particularly impotent outside of major cities in the vast rural stretches where the insurgency makes its home. White House and national security officials think that the military offensive underway in Helmand province, and planned for neighboring Kandahar province, must be accompanied by a genuine improvement in local government.
"We haven't seen any results," Khalid Pashtun, an Afghan parliament member, said of Karzai's second term. "Maybe Washington is really worried about that."
For Karzai, who has spoken several times by videoconference with Obama in recent months, the meeting on Sunday emphasized themes he has heard before, according to his advisers. Obama used the occasion to invite Karzai to the White House for a meeting scheduled for May 12. Karzai had long wanted the invitation, but administration officials were unwilling to extend one until his performance improved.
Rangin Spanta, a top Karzai adviser and the former foreign minister, said the discussion with Obama focused on corruption, reconstruction and "strengthening Afghan state entities."
"There was a strong message that President Obama brought to us, especially the long-term commitment of the United States for Afghanistan and aligning the cooperation of our governments," Spanta said in an interview.
Karzai's spokesman, Wahid Omar, described the meeting as "very cordial" and set in a "friendly atmosphere." After a roughly 40-minute meeting of the two presidents and a handful of close aides, a larger group gathered at the palace for dinner before Obama's entourage flew to Bagram. Omar said Karzai told Obama about the Afghan government's efforts on corruption, including changes to an anticorruption body, intended to give it more power. Karzai also stressed that the billions of dollars of international funding should not be used to create "parallel structures" but should be funneled through the Afghan government, Omar said.
Karzai has met this month with leaders from Pakistan, Iran and China, and some Afghan officials also saw Obama's visit as a chance to remind Karzai of the need to work closely with the United States.
"The situation in Afghanistan is critical right now. It's unstable, insecure, and there is concern all over the world, especially in the United States, to keep relations between these countries close," said Noor ul-Haq Ulumi, who heads the defense committee in the Afghan parliament.
Ulumi said he hoped Obama in the coming months will focus less on large-scale military operations and more on government reform and development projects.
"Our problem needs a political solution," he said. "Karzai became president through fraud, and it's still a corrupted government inside Afghanistan."
White House officials said the president had sought the trip for months after his decision in December to add 30,000 new U.S. troops. He has made one other war-zone trip, visiting Iraq under similar secrecy last year. White House officials did not disclose the president's whereabouts until he had landed in Afghanistan, telling reporters that he was spending the weekend at Camp David, where his movements are easy to disguise. The press corps traveling with him was required to keep the visit secret for security reasons.
Upon arrival, Obama was treated to a red-carpet welcoming ceremony, with an Afghan color guard on display, before retreating for meetings. Just after 11 p.m., Obama landed at Bagram, and entered a hangar to address a boisterous crowd of about 2,000 soldiers. Wearing a leather bomber jacket, Obama spoke for about 20 minutes, thanking the troops for their service.
"If I thought for a minute that America's vital interests were not served, were not at stake here in Afghanistan, I would order all of you home right away," Obama said. Their services, he told them, "are absolutely necessary, absolutely essential to America's safety and security."
Obama said the U.S. mission is to "disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al-Qaeda and its extremist allies," while at the same time reversing the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan, and strengthening the Afghan government and security forces. His speech to the soldiers was more rousing than when he announced the troop escalation, but the content was largely the same.
Wilson reported from Washington. Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut, Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Jennifer Agiesta in Washington and special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.