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Obama presses Karzai in surprise Afghan visit

Wants more steps against corruption

By Alissa J. Rubin
New York Times / March 29, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan — President Obama personally delivered a pointed criticism to President Hamid Karzai in a face-to-face meeting yesterday, flying here for an unannounced visit that reflected growing vexation with Karzai as America’s military commitment to defeat the Taliban insurgency has deepened.

Obama’s visit, which had been shrouded in secrecy and lasted only a few hours but included a boisterous pep rally for American troops, was the first trip by him as president to the site of an eight-year-old war he has stamped as his own.

While Obama said “the American people are encouraged by the progress that has been made,’’ as he stood beside Karzai at the heavily fortified presidential palace, he also emphasized that work remains to be done on the governance issues that have frustrated American officials over the past year.

“We also want to continue to make progress on the civilian process,’’ Obama said. He mentioned several areas, including anticorruption and the rule of law.

The trip highlighted how far the administration believes that the Afghan government has to go to make good on promises that Karzai has made on governance and even reintegration with certain reconcilable members of the Taliban insurgency.

The language used by Obama and Karzai in their private discussions was not disclosed. But General James L. Jones, the national security adviser, told reporters on Air Force One en route to Afghanistan that the administration wanted Karzai to “understand that in his second term, there are certain things that have not been paid attention to, almost since day one.’’

Jones said that the Afghan president “needs to be seized with how important’’ the issue of corruption, in particular, is for American officials.

The visit capped a high-profile week for Obama, in which he achieved a singular victory domestically — signing health care legislation — and reached an arms control agreement with Russia that calls for the two powers to slash their nuclear arsenals to the lowest levels in half a century.

Obama’s visit to Afghanistan took place against a backdrop of tension between Karzai and the Americans that has not substantially abated since Karzai was declared the winner of an election tainted by fraud. The United Nations, the US, and other NATO countries have demanded that Karzai make major overhauls in the electoral system, tacitly indicating that they might withhold money for the next election if they do not see changes.

Karzai recently overhauled the election complaint commission, but made it less neutral by giving himself the right to appoint all five members. Currently three of the members are appointed by the United Nations. The move infuriated some Western diplomats here who saw it as almost a taunt.

At a conference in London at the end of January, Western officials made it clear that they felt Karzai had fallen short on the issue of corruption. Recently, he has strengthened the anticorruption commission, and the attorney general appears to be moving forward on a handful of high-profile cases involving former government figures. Still, corruption remains pervasive, and Karzai has not used his position as a bully pulpit to change the culture.

“He’s slipping away from the West,’’ said a senior European diplomat in Kabul.

Karzai warmly received one of America’s most vocal adversaries, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, on an official visit to Kabul in early March and met with him again this past weekend in Tehran when the two celebrated the Afghan and Iranian new year together.

Karzai returned to Kabul only hours before Obama landed.

Last week, Karzai made a three-day trip to China, a country that is making economic investments in Afghanistan, notably its copper reserves, taking advantage of the hard-won and expensive security efforts of the United States and other western nations.

Air Force One landed at night at Bagram Air Base after a 13-hour nonstop flight for a visit kept secret for security reasons, and Obama quickly boarded a helicopter for Kabul.

White House officials did not give advance notice of the trip and even went as far as telling reporters that Obama would be spending the weekend at Camp David with his family. In fact, the president’s trip occurred during the Afghan night, and he was flying back to Washington before most Afghans awakened this morning.

Besides General Jones, Obama was accompanied by Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, and a number of other officials from the White House and the Defense Department.

Obama also met with about 2,500 of the tens of thousands of American troops who have been sent to Afghanistan since he took office. His visit with the troops is particularly significant because American combat casualties in Afghanistan have risen sharply while he has been commander in chief.

In the first three months of 2010, at least 83 American service personnel have died in Afghanistan, compared with 43 in the first three months of 2009, according to icasualties.org, a database of casualties in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

The number of military personnel wounded in combat has also spiked dramatically. Military officials have warned that casualties are likely to continue to rise sharply as the Pentagon completes the deployment of 30,000 additional forces, under the strategy that Obama announced in November.

Casualties are higher, military officials said, because American forces are aggressively seeking out Taliban insurgents in the country’s population centers, and are planning a major operation in Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban, in the coming months.

Civilian casualties also have risen sharply. Yesterday hundreds of Afghans rallied outside a government building in Kunduz Province to protest a NATO air strike in the country’s north that killed seven police officers last month, the Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry said six civilians were killed Saturday in two roadside bomb explosions, including one in Sangin district and one in Nawa district.

“Al Qaeda and their extremist allies are a threat to the people of Afghanistan and a threat to the people of America, but they’re also a threat to people around the world,’’ Obama told the troops. “My main job here today is to say thank you on behalf of the entire American people. You are part of the finest military in the history of the world. And we are proud of you.’’

For the American troops, the visit by their commander in chief was a long time coming. While Obama visited troops at Camp Victory in Iraq three months after he was inaugurated, the White House had held off on a presidential trip to Afghanistan as Obama went through a rigorous months-long review of Afghanistan strategy, and as that country endured the twists and turns of a disputed election.