KABUL — In a surprise visit, President Barack Obama pressed Afghan leaders on Sunday to do more to rein in rampant corruption and improve their government as he got a firsthand look at the 8-year-old war he inherited and dramatically escalated.
During meetings with President Hamid Karzai and his Cabinet, Obama told them he was pleased with progress made since his last discussion with Karzai, by secure videoconference on March 15. Obama also invited Karzai to visit Washington on May 12.
He praised recent steps in the military campaign against insurgents. But in discussions that lasted about 30 minutes at the presidential palace, Obama stressed that Afghans need to see conditions on the ground get better.
"Progress will continue to be made ... but we also want to make progress on the civilian front," Obama said, referring to anti-corruption efforts, good governance and adherence to the rule of law. "All of these things end up resulting in an Afghanistan that is more prosperous and more secure," he said after a brief meeting with Karzai.
The trip, its secrecy forced by security concerns, was an extraordinary capstone to a momentous week in Obama's presidency. He achieved the most ambitious domestic policy initiative in decades with a historic health care overhaul and scored first major foreign policy achievement with a significant new arms control treaty with Russia.
Karzai promised that his country "would move forward into the future" to eventually take over its own security, and he thanked Obama for the American intervention in his country.
He told Obama he has begun to establish more credible national institutions on corruption and made clear he intends to make ministerial appointments more representative of the multiple ethnic and geographic regions of the country, according to a U.S. account of the meeting.
Obama's trip was intended to emphasize U.S. demands that Karzai deal with corruption and cut the flow of money from poppy production and drug trafficking that is sustaining the insurgency. The U.S. also wants Karzai to create an effective, credible judicial system and to halt cronyism and rewards for warlords in government hiring. Both of Karzai's vice presidents are former warlords whose forces allegedly killed thousands of people in the civil war of the 1990s that paved the way for the rise of the Taliban.
The White House insisted that Karzai's Cabinet participate in most of the meetings with Obama. The Cabinet includes a number of ministers favored by the U.S., including the heads of finance, interior and defense, whom the Obama administration wants to empower as a way of reducing the influence of presidential cronies. Some talented Afghan administrators have complained that Karzai marginalized them in an attempt to solidify his powers.
The Afghan government has tried to tackle corruption in the past with little success but Karzai pledged after fraud-marred August elections to rein in graft by making officials declare their assets and giving the country's anti-corruption watchdog more power to go after those accused of misusing their office. This month he gave more powers to an anti-corruption body — the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption — including the authority to refer cases to court and act as prosecutor.
The non-governmental organization Transparency International last year ranked Afghanistan 176th out of 180 countries in its annual poll that assesses the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians. The only countries ranked lower were Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar and Somalia.
Obama landed in Afghanistan for a stay of just a few hours, all in darkness, after an overnight flight from Washington. He flew by helicopter from Bagram Air Field to the capital for his second stop in a war zone as commander in chief, coming about a year after a similarly secretive trip to Iraq. He arrived in Kabul just two days after a threatening new audio message from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, believed to be hiding along the ungoverned border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The White House made no advance announcement of the visit, which officials said had been long desired by the president but delayed by weather and other logistical obstacles. Initially, the White House said Karzai had been informed of Obama's impending visit just an hour before his arrival. But Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said later that the Afghan government was told about the trip on Thursday.
Obama had gone Friday afternoon to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., from which unnoticed departures are easier because of its secluded mountain location. The small contingent of White House aides and media allowed on the trip were sworn to secrecy.
It was Obama's second visit to Afghanistan; the first was in 2008 when, as a presidential candidate and U.S. senator, he joined an official congressional delegation.
After his talks with Afghan leaders, Obama was to speak with American troops.
In December, Obama ordered 30,000 additional forces into the fight against the Taliban, which lost control of the country when the U.S. invaded in 2001. Those new U.S. troops are still arriving and most are expected to be in place by summer, for a full force of roughly 100,000 U.S. troops. There were about 34,000 when Obama took office.
At least 945 members of the U.S. military had died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to an Associated Press count. The number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan has roughly doubled in the first three months of 2010 compared to the same period last year as Washington has added tens of thousands of additional soldiers to reverse the Taliban's momentum.
The war is unpopular with a majority of Americans, especially progressives in the base of Obama's Democratic Party. This was reflected in Obama's new Afghanistan strategy. He combined the large buildup — his second to the Afghanistan force in less than a year as president — with a call to start bringing troops home in July 2011, just a year after the full contingent is in place.