President Barack Obama descended on Kabul last night to tell the Afghan Cabinet that it must do more to root out cronyism and corruption in government, in his first visit to the warzone as Commander-in-Chief and since he ordered a surge in the number of American troops in Afghanistan.
The newly emboldened president, who has pivoted decisively to foreign policy since winning passage last week of the most significant overhaul of US healthcare in generations, gave the Afghan leader Hamid Karzai just one hour's notice of his arrival at the presidential palace in the capital yesterday evening, on a trip that was first broached just three days earlier.
The secrecy of the visit — and its timing, under cover of darkness — reflects security concerns in Afghanistan, where American fatalities are running at twice the rate of a year ago.
At least 77 American soldiers have been killed since the start of the year. The Pentagon has warned that casualties are likely to remain high as 30,000 more troops are sent to the country this year in an attempt to turn the tide against Taliban insurgency.
“I'm encouraged by the progress that's been made,” Mr Obama said, after meeting Mr Karzai and members of the Cabinet, before heading to visit some of the US troops sent to Afghanistan since his inauguration in January 2008. “One of the main reasons I am here is to just say thank you for the extraordinary efforts of our troops. All of us want to see a day when Afghanistan is going to be able to provide for its own security.”
He stressed that further improvements require Mr Karzai to make good on promises he made after his re-election last year, in a poll marred by voting irregularities, to make government appoint
ments on merit, to instil the rule of law and to clamp down on corruption. “Progress will continue to be made,” Mr Obama said, “but we also want to make progress on the civilian front. All of these things end up resulting in an Afghanistan that is more prosperous and more secure.”
For his part, Mr Karzai thanked the US for its efforts to improve infrastructure in the country, and accepted an offer to visit Washington in May for further talks.
That will come shortly after a loya jirga, or tribal council, in Afghanistan which is scheduled to discuss the reintegration into regional government of some moderate Taliban elements.
Earlier, Mr Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, told reporters aboard Air Force One that the visit to Kabul was designed to put additional pressure on the Afghan president.
“We're going to make him understand that in this second term that there are going to be certain things he has to do as the president of his country that have not been paid attention to almost since day one,” Mr Jones said.
Air Force One landed at Bagram air base last night, and Mr Obama flew to Kabul by helicopter. He last visited Afghanistan in 2008 as part of a Congressional delegation while he was a presidential candidate, and he promised to switch US military resources from the war in Iraq, which he opposed, to the conflict against the Taliban, which was begun in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington DC in 2001.