Saturday, July 19, 2008

Barack in Afghanistan

The following is an article published today by the New York Times on Obama's stop in Afghanistan.
U.S. Military, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Senator Barack Obama at Bagram air base in Afghanistan with, from left: William B. Wood, the American ambassador to Afghanistan; Senator Chuck Hagel; Sgt. Maj. Vincent Camacho; Senator Jack Reed; and Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Senator Barack Obama arrived in Afghanistan on Saturday, opening a high-stakes foreign trip in a country that is increasingly the focus of his clash with Senator John McCain in the presidential campaign over whether the war in Iraq has been a distraction in hunting down terrorists.
As Mr. Obama met with American troops, military leaders and regional officials in eastern Afghanistan, he made no public statements in his first hours on the ground here, the first stop on a weeklong trip that will take him to Iraq, Israel and Western Europe.
But Mr. McCain quickly sought to raise questions about Mr. Obama’s judgment on foreign policy, saying in a radio address on Saturday that his Democratic opponent had been wrong about the increase in troops in Iraq, a strategy Mr. McCain said should be the basis for addressing deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan as well.
Mr. Obama flew to eastern Afghanistan, close to the border with Pakistan, to get a first-hand look at the region where American troops are feeling the brunt of increased attacks from militants infiltrating the border from Pakistan. In selecting Afghanistan as the opening stop of his first overseas trip as the presumptive Democratic nominee, he was seeking to highlight what he says is its importance as the key front in the fight against terrorism.
The trip is intended to build impressions, and counter criticism, about his ability to serve on the world stage in a time of war. It carries political risk, particularly if Mr. Obama makes a mistake — the three broadcast network news anchors will be along for the latter parts of the trip — or is seen as the preferred candidate of Europe and other parts of the world. But his advisers believe it offers a significant opportunity for him to be seen as a leader who can improve America’s image.
“I’m more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking,” Mr. Obama told reporters before leaving Washington for a trip cloaked in secrecy because of security concerns. “And I think it is very important to recognize that I’m going over there as a U.S. senator. We have one president at a time.”
Even as the fragile economy has emerged as the chief issue on the minds of voters in the United States, the presidential race on Saturday unfolded with a foreign policy debate taking place across borders and time zones, a reminder that the nation is at war and that the candidates offer very different backgrounds and approaches when it comes to national security.
Mr. Obama touched down in Kabul just before noon on Saturday, his aides said, after stopping to visit — and play basketball with — American troops in Kuwait on his trip from Washington. In Afghanistan, he received a briefing from military commanders at Bagram Air Field and was scheduled to meet with President Hamid Karzai on Sunday.
While the Iraq war has been one of the dominant issues in the presidential campaign, Afghanistan has moved to the forefront of the foreign policy plans of both candidates. President Bush’s agreement to a “general time horizon” for withdrawing American troops in Iraq has opened the door to new consideration of strengthening the American and NATO presence in Afghanistan, which Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain both agree on in principle.
For months, Mr. McCain has criticized his rival for failing to visit Afghanistan and taking only one trip to Iraq. Even on Saturday, in a radio address, Mr. McCain renewed his criticism and sought to minimize Mr. Obama’s trip. “In a time of war,” Mr. McCain said, “the commander-in-chief’s job doesn’t get a learning curve.”
Mr. McCain, whose campaign spokeswoman suggested that Mr. Obama was embarking an on a “campaign rally overseas,” said his rival was not going to Afghanistan and Iraq with an open mind. In his radio address, he said, “Apparently, he’s confident enough that he won’t find any facts that might change his opinion or alter his strategy — remarkable.”
But Republicans were carefully watching Mr. Obama’s trip, which is rare in its profile and scope for a presidential candidate. The White House also made clear on Saturday that it was monitoring Mr. Obama’s travels, accidentally sending an internal e-mail message to a broad distribution list of reporters of a news report that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of Iraq supported Mr. Obama’s proposed 16-month timeline for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq.
In addition to his visit to Iraq, Mr. Obama is set to meet with a series of presidents, prime ministers and opposition leaders as he travels to Iraq, Jordan, Israel and three European capitals, including Berlin, where he is to give a major speech on Thursday. On the Afghanistan and Iraq leg of the trip, he has been joined by Senators Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, and Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, both of whom have been mentioned as possible running mates for Mr. Obama.
The three senators, all of whom have been critical of the administration’s policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, flew on Saturday to Jalalabad, one of 13 provincial bases that are commanded by American forces in the Regional Command East of the NATO force in Afghanistan. Many of those provinces, including Kunar, Nuristan, Nangarhar, Khost and Paktika, line the border with Pakistan’s turbulent tribal areas, where militant groups allied with the Taliban and Al Qaeda have gained in strength and have increased attacks by some 40 percent in recent months.
The American delegation received a briefing from Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force-101 at Bagram Air Field.
The governor of Nangarhar Province, Gul Agha Shirzai, a former mujahedeen commander who has a brutal past but is favored by the United States as someone who can get things done, was the only Afghan official to meet the senators, along with the United States ambassador and generals. Mr. Shirzai, who is thought to have his own aspirations in Afghan presidential elections next year, has been praised for his tough action against poppy cultivation and official corruption in his province.

“Barack Obama thanked the officials of Nangarhar and the people of Nangarhar for eliminating poppy cultivation, fighting corruption, and he promised that the United States would give more help to Afghanistan and especially to Nangarhar,” he said by telephone after the one hour meeting.
The senators flew back to Bagram air base, north of Kabul, at 5 p.m., the governor said. At 6 p.m. two military Chinook helicopters landed at the United States embassy, as two more attack helicopters circled above.
Afghans in Kabul said they knew nothing of the visit of the presidential candidate, and some interviewed on the streets near the American Embassy did not even know who Mr. Obama was. But some who had heard of him said they liked his message, in particular that he would pursue Al Qaeda in Pakistan.
“So far what he is talking about is what Afghans want to hear: reduce troops in Iraq, focus on Afghanistan and focus on Pakistan,” said Ashmat Ghani, an influential tribal leader whose home province of Logar, just south of the capital, is suffering from growing instability by insurgent groups.
Mr. Ghani, who is a critic of Mr. Karzai’s leadership and opposes his running for another presidential term next year, also welcomed Mr. Obama’s recent criticism that the Afghan president has not come out of his bunker to lead efforts in reconstruction and building security institutions.
“We would welcome such a direct voice that would close up this problem,” he said.
Yet other Afghans interviewed were skeptical that a new American president would make much difference for them.
“What have we seen from the current president that we should expect anything from a future president?” said Abdul Wakil, 28, who runs a juice stall in the street near the heavily guarded United States embassy in central Kabul.
Mr. Obama’s trip is drawing considerable attention in the United States and abroad. It is being choreographed by his strategists to coincide with a new television advertisement intended to highlight his ideas on foreign policy and portray him as ready to serve as commander in chief, an issue on which, polls suggest, he trails Mr. McCain.

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