KABUL (Reuters) - Barack Obama made his first trip to Afghanistan as U.S. president on Sunday, delivering a rousing speech to troops and telling Afghan President Hamid Karzai that progress on fighting corruption should match military gains.
Air Force One landed in darkness at Bagram airfield north of the Afghan capital, and Obama was whisked by helicopter to Karzai’s palace in Kabul, where he was greeted by the Afghan president and a band playing the U.S. national anthem.
His meeting with Karzai was subdued, reflecting the frosty relations between his administration and the wartime ally upon whom Obama’s signature foreign policy rests. Neither man answered questions from the press.
“I want to send a strong message that the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan is going to continue. We have already seen progress with respect to the military campaign against extremism in the region,” Obama told Karzai in front of a group of reporters ushered into a room inside the palace.
“We also want to continue to make progress on ... good governance, rule of law, anti-corruption efforts — all these things end up resulting in an Afghanistan that is more prosperous, more secure, independent,” he added.
Karzai said he hoped “the partnership will continue ... towards a stable, strong, peaceful Afghanistan that can sustain itself, that can move forward into the future.”
U.S. officials said corruption and governance were among the issues that the president discussed directly with Karzai during talks that lasted barely half an hour. A perception in the United States that Karzai is tolerant of corruption has sapped support for the war back home.
In December, Obama ordered the deployment of an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan and set a mid-2011 target to begin withdrawal. About a third have so far arrived, participating in a major offensive in the south of the country last month.
Obama returned to Bagram, appearing in a bomber jacket, and delivering a speech to troops just before midnight, telling them he was confident they would have success in their mission.
“I want you to know ... whether you are working here on Bagram or patrolling a village down in Helmand ... your services are absolutely necessary, absolutely essential to America’s safety and security,” he told the troops.
He met the commander of U.S. and NATO troops, Army General Stanley McChrystal, and the U.S. ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, before taking off on Air Force One without seeing daylight.
The Obama administration has had an uneasy relationship with Karzai throughout Obama’s 14 months in office, reaching a low point during a three-month Afghan election dispute last year.
Eikenberry wrote in a classified cable in November, later leaked, that Karzai was “not an adequate strategic partner.” Asked about that description during the flight to Kabul, Obama’s national security advisor, James Jones, said he saw Karzai as an adequate partner because he was Afghanistan’s elected leader.
Obama speaks to Karzai much less frequently than his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, who launched the war after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. He invited Karzai to visit Washington in May.
The trip allowed Obama to see any early results of his troop increase, showed support for military personnel and countered critics who say his focus on passing healthcare legislation has diverted attention from foreign policy.
Since Obama took office, the eight-year war in Afghanistan has shifted from a second priority behind Iraq to the main effort of the U.S. military. By the end of this year, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will have tripled under Obama’s watch to 100,000, along with about 40,000 from NATO allies.
Obama’s domestic victory on healthcare reform last week gives him political space to turn his attention to the Afghan war, which has mixed support from the American public amid rising casualties, costs, and corruption among Afghan leaders.
Obama travelled to Afghanistan during the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign after being criticised by Republican opponent John McCain for failing to tour the war zone, but had not returned since winning. The White House says previous planned trips were cancelled because of weather or logistics.
Afghan policy has been transformed during Obama’s year in office. Top U.S. officials held two long reviews of the White House’s war policy in less than a year, both times electing to send tens of thousands of extra troops.
The war has become far deadlier and far more costly, setting records last year for the numbers of troops and civilians killed.
Karzai, who remained in power after a fraud-marred election last August, has launched a high profile effort to reconcile with the Taliban, who have made a comeback more than eight years since U.S.-backed Afghan militias drove them from Kabul.
The Taliban have so far spurned his offer to talk, although another insurgent group, Hezb-i-Islami, sent a delegation to Kabul this month to present a peace plan. The palace revealed this week that Karzai had received them.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said last week the timing was still not right to reconcile with top Afghan Taliban leaders.
Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch, Golnar Motevalli and Peter Graff; writing by Peter Graff, editing by Paul Casciato