***From The New York Times***
WASHINGTON — President Obama made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Sunday, his first as commander in chief to the site of the war he inherited and has stamped as his own.
While Mr. Obama noted that military progress has been made in Afghanistan, he added, pointedly, that “we also want to continue to make progress on the civilian process,” mentioning several areas, including governance, anti-corruption and the rule of law.
His remarks came as he stood next to Mr. Karzai at the presidential palace after their meeting. Mr. Karzai is expected to visit Washington in May for additional talks.
In his comments, Mr. Karzai promised that his country “would move forward into the future” to eventually take over its own security, and he thanked Mr. Obama for the American intervention in his country, The Associated Press reported.
White House officials said before the meeting that Mr. Obama planned to press Mr. Karzai on a number of concerns, in particular the failure of Mr. Karzai to make good on promises he made to the international community on anti-corruption, governance and even reintegration with certain reconcilable members of the Taliban insurgency.
Gen. James L. Jones, the National Security Adviser, told reporters aboard the flight to Bagram that Mr. Obama would try to make Mr. Karzai “understand that in his second term, there are certain things that have not been paid attention to, almost since day one.” General Jones said those things included “a merit-based system for appointment of key government officials, battling corruption, taking the fight to the narco-traffickers,” which, he said, “provides a lot of the economic engine for the insurgents.”
At the presidential palace, Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai walked and chatted along a red carpet as they made their way to an Afghan color guard, where the national anthems of both countries were played, in a welcoming ceremony that lasted 10 minutes.
White House officials disclosed no information about the trip until Mr. Obama’s plane had landed in Afghanistan, and had even gone so far as to inform reporters that the president would be spending the weekend at Camp David with his family. In fact, Mr. Obama’s trip is occurring during the Afghan night, and he is expected to be on his way back to Washington before most Afghans wake up Monday morning.
Besides General Jones, Mr. Obama was accompanied by his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and several White House and Defense officials.
Mr. Obama also met with some 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 it comes at the same time that military officials report that the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan has roughly doubled in the first three months of 2010, compared to the same period last year.
The number of soldiers 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 another 30,000 soldiers, per Afghanistan strategy announced by Mr. Obama back in November. The reason for the spike, military officials said, is because American forces are aggressively seeking out Taliban insurgents in the country’s population centers, and are planning a major operation in the Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban.
Mr. Obama’s trip to Afghanistan caps a high-profile week in which the president coupled a singular domestic policy victory — the signing of a health reform bill — with the foreign policy achievement: reaching an arms control agreement with Russia in which the two nuclear powers agreed to slash their nuclear arsenals to the lowest levels in half a century.
The Afghanistan trip also shows the president pivoting to national security concerns now that he has gotten the bulk of the health care fight behind him. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is to visit Mr. Obama this week in Washington, and Mr. Obama will be hosting a nuclear nonproliferation summit in Washington next month.
The Palm Sunday visit to American combat troops by their commander in chief is meant, in part, to project the image of an American president keeping on top of several issues at once.
At the same time, though, Mr. Obama’s visit to Afghanistan as commander in chief has been a long time coming. While he visited troops at Camp Victory, Iraq, three months after he was inaugurated, the White House has held off on a presidential visit to Afghanistan as Mr. Obama went through a rigorous months-long review of Afghanistan strategy, and as that country endured the twists and turns of a disputed election.
Even after Mr. Karzai was inaugurated and Mr. Obama announced that he would send an additional 30,000 American troops, Mr. Obama still put off a trip as he focused on his domestic priorities, including a health care bill.
Indeed, some members of the military have privately expressed concern that since announcing the Afghanistan troop increase, Mr. Obama has not talked much about the war there.
Mr. Obama appeared to be trying to address that on Sunday during his remarks with Mr. Karzai. “One of the main reasons I’m here is to just say thank you for the incredible efforts of our troops and our coalition partners,” he said. “They make tremendous sacrifices far away from home, and I want to make sure they know how proud their commander in chief is of them.”
***From The New York Times, Thank You***