KABUL (Reuters) – Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama met Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on Sunday, the second day of a visit to Afghanistan that is meant to bolster the senator’s foreign policy credentials.
Obama has previously criticized Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the hardline Islamist Taliban in 2001, but said the purpose of this trip was to listen rather than deliver strong messages.
Obama, part of a congressional delegation, was at the heavily guarded Afghan presidential palace in the capital Kabul and was having lunch with Karzai, a palace official said.
The Illinois senator will also visit Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain on a foreign tour he hopes will help answer Republican criticism that he does not have the experience to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Obama last week criticized Karzai in an interview with CNN.
“I think the Karzai government has not gotten out of the bunker and helped to organise Afghanistan, and the government, the judiciary, police forces, in ways that would give people confidence. So there are a lot of problems there,” he said.
Once the darling of the West, Karzai has come under increasing criticism at home and abroad for failing to take tough action to clamp down on rampant corruption, tackle former warlords and stamp out record-breaking drug production — all factors that feed the growing Taliban insurgency.
But asked ahead of the trip whether he would have tough talk for Karzai and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Obama replied: “I’m more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking.”
“And I think it is very important to recognize that I’m going over there as a U.S. senator. We have one president at a time, so it’s the president’s job to deliver those messages,” Obama said.
OBAMA TALKS TO TROOPS
Obama earlier had breakfast with U.S. troops in Kabul and talked about their experiences in the country, which has seen a sharp rise in violence this year.
“They had breakfast at Camp Eggers with the soldiers,” said U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Johnson. “They sat with the soldiers, shared stories with the soldiers about what is going on in Afghanistan … shared experiences.”
Obama arrived in Afghanistan on Saturday and was briefed by the commander of NATO-led forces in the east of the country, where mostly U.S. troops have seen a 40 percent rise in Taliban attacks this year.
Together with fellow senators Jack Reed and Chuck Hagel, Obama then traveled to the eastern city of Jalalabad where he met the provincial governor, Gul Agha Shirzai, a former anti-Taliban warlord who has claimed some success in bringing relative order to the frontier province.
It is more than six years since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban for sheltering al Qaeda leaders behind the September 11 attacks, but violence has risen sharply in recent months and there are few signs the insurgency is weakening.
NATO says part of the reason for the rise in violence is de facto ceasefires between militants and the military in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt, which provide the Taliban with sanctuaries from which to launch attacks into Afghanistan.
Obama wants to send two more brigades, or some 7,000 U.S. troops, to Afghanistan and shift the emphasis from what he calls the Bush administration’s “single-minded” focus on Iraq. He has called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 16 months.
The United States has about four times more troops in Iraq than the 36,000 it has in Afghanistan. But more of its soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in both May and June than in Iraq.