KABUL, Afghanistan - Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama got his first look at deteriorating conditions in war-torn Afghanistan yesterday on the first day of a highly anticipated weeklong trip to the Middle East and Europe that drew fresh criticism from his Republican rival, John McCain.
Traveling as part of an official congressional delegation, Obama met with US military commanders and local officials and toured part of the country by helicopter. He made no public statements yesterday, despite the intense interest in the trip and its political ramifications.
The senator from Illinois landed in the Afghan capital yesterday morning after stopping in Kuwait to visit American troops there. He was traveling under tight security amid a surge of Taliban activity in recent weeks.
After a briefing at Bagram air base, he flew by helicopter to the northeastern city of Jalalabad in Nangarhar province, where he met with US soldiers and local leaders. From there, he set out by helicopter for a look at parts of eastern Afghanistan before returning to Kabul for a dinner with senior Afghan officials. He is to meet with President Hamid Karzai today.
McCain used his new weekly radio address yesterday to attack Obama's foreign policy credentials and judgment. But as McCain sparred with his rival, Obama received an unexpected boost from Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, who told the German magazine Der Spiegel that he looked favorably on the Democratic senator's call for a 16-month timetable for withdrawing most US forces from Iraq.
Maliki's interview was published a day after White House officials announced that President Bush and the Iraqi leader had reached agreement on the need to set a "time horizon" for withdrawing US troops.
Iraq is expected to be part of the itinerary of Obama's trip, which also includes stops in Jordan, Israel, Germany, France, and Britain. The long-planned journey is designed to enhance Obama's foreign policy credentials and allay concerns of some voters that he lacks the experience to serve as commander in chief while the country is engaged in two wars and a global campaign against terrorism.
For the past week, the two presidential candidates have engaged in a sharp debate over US policy on Iraq and its impact on an increasingly urgent situation in Afghanistan. McCain, showing he will not cede the foreign policy issue while Obama is on his trip, accused his rival in his radio address of inexperience, arrogance, and even deceptiveness.
Obama was traveling with Senators Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, and Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, who have been mentioned as prospective running mates. He called back to his advisers in the United States yesterday evening from Kabul and, according to spokesman Robert Gibbs, described morale among US forces as high but the situation dire.
"He said that the deteriorating security situation is very, very real and that we've got a lot of work to do as it relates to that," Gibbs said in a telephone interview. "I think he heard and saw a lot of that today."
Security was so tight for the visit that most Afghan and US officials in Kabul refused to discuss whom he was scheduled to meet, with some denying that Obama was even in the country hours after he had landed.
His visit to Jalabad and the normally quiet Nangarhar province came 12 days after at least 47 people were killed in a US-led airstrike in the area that has fueled intense discussions about foreign military operations in Afghanistan. Afghan officials have said the majority of those killed in the bombing were women and children.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked insurgents have regrouped in eastern Afghanistan, especially near the Pakistani border. Nangarhar's governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, a former warlord, briefed Obama and other members of the delegation about the situation there, according to Sherzai's chief of staff.
The United States is considering changes in its military strategy in the region to confront the mounting threat from Islamist insurgents operating in Pakistan's tribal areas near the Afghan border.
Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in the past week that he believes troop reductions in Iraq could be in the works, a development that would presumably allow the Pentagon to shift more soldiers and military resources to Afghanistan. The United States has about 140,000 troops in Iraq and 36,000 in Afghanistan as part a NATO force there.
NATO and US forces have suffered significant losses in Afghanistan in recent months, and in June the number of US soldiers killed there nearly equaled US troop deaths in Iraq.
Obama has said he wants to send two additional US combat brigades, about 7,000 troops, to Afghanistan. He has advocated reducing the US force in Iraq so that troops can be redeployed to Afghanistan to quell the rising threat there.
Before his departure, Obama had accused McCain of waffling on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, criticizing the decorated Vietnam War veteran for voting to go to war in Iraq. He called the loss of focus on the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan a "grave mistake."
Yesterday, McCain said he too supported sending more troops to Afghanistan, from both NATO and the United States. But he said he also favored strategic and organizational changes in the mission there, patterned more directly on what has worked in Iraq. He also pledged to appoint a White House-based official with principal responsibility to oversee Afghanistan policy.
The senator from Arizona offered a sharp critique of Obama for laying out his withdrawal strategy in Iraq before even embarking on his fact-finding visit to the war zone. "Apparently, he's confident enough that he won't find any facts that might change his opinion or alter his strategy," McCain said. "Remarkable."