Obama Begins Afghanistan Tour

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Left: Karen Bleier / AFP / Getty; Rafiq Maqbool / AP

Senator Barack Obama and US Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive U.S. Democratic presidential nominee, took his first step onto the world stage Saturday, landing in Afghanistan for what is expected to be a two day tour of a country he has identified as his (and Washington's) most pressing foreign policy challenge. Not that many in the country even knew he was planning a visit. You might call it the invisible man approach to building foreign policy credentials. While security around the presidential palace in the capital was amplified in anticipation that Obama would meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, no one at the palace, in the US embassy, at NATO headquarters in the country or in the US military would confirm his pending visit.

It's an understandable precaution — security in the capital has reached an all time low. On July 7 a suicide bomber rammed his explosives laden truck into the gates of the Indian embassy, killing 41 in the capital's worst terrorist attack. In April assassins attempted to kill Karzai at a national day parade, and in January militants conducted a sophisticated raid on the country's only luxury hotel, killing 9. This year in Afghanistan as a whole has been the bloodiest ever. For two months running foreign soldier casualties in Afghanistan have topped those in Iraq, Obama's anticipated next stop on a trip that will also take him to Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain, even though the Iraqi theatre has more than twice as many troops. So far it looks as if the trend will continue in July. On the 6th Taliban forces raided an outpost in Eastern Afghanistan, killing 9 US soldiers in the greatest single loss of American soldiers since a helicopter was shot down in 2003.

Obama has blamed a large part of Afghanistan's deterioration on the Bush Administration's focus on Iraq. "In fact — as should have been apparent to President Bush and Senator McCain — the central front in the war on terror is not Iraq, and it never was," he said in a major foreign policy speech on July 15th. "It is unacceptable that almost seven years after nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on our soil, the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 are still at large. If another attack on our homeland comes, it will likely come from the same region where 9/11 was planned. And yet today, we have five times more troops in Iraq than Afghanistan." As president, Obama has promised that he would redeploy two more US combat brigades to the Afghan theatre, ask NATO for more troops and fewer restrictions on those troops, accelerate the training of the national army and police, encourage alternative livelihood crops for opium farmers and help support the fledgling Afghan government. In recent weeks, his Republican opponent has joined the call for sending more troops to Afghanistan, and earlier this week Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that U.S. officials are looking for ways to send more forces to the country. Before he left Washington for Afghanistan, Obama told a pool reporter that "I'm looking forward to seeing what the situation on the ground is. I want to, obviously, talk to the commanders and get a sense, both in Afghanistan and in Baghdad of, you know, what the most, their biggest concerns are. And I want to thank our troops for the heroic work that they've been doing."

Obama's promises appeal to Afghans who have long complained that their country was forgotten when the US went to war in Iraq. His speech was broadcast on local television, and as in the US, many here see him as the candidate for change. "He looks young and active," says carpet seller Abdul Saboor, 56. "Bush has made too many mistakes in Afghanistan, so if Obama can change the policy it is good for America and good for us." Saboor is acutely aware of the problems insecurity have brought to his country; his carpet shop, which used to be next to the Indian embassy, was blown up in the terrorist attack. "I hope this new guy has new ideas for security. He says he wants to bring troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. Iraq is improved now, so maybe those troops will improve security here too."

But not everyone is so hopeful, at least not yet. Mohammad Farid, a 41-year-old bank guard, dismisses this visit as politicking for American eyes, and doesn't think it will have any impact whatsoever. "He is just a candidate, trying to get votes from American soldiers. Let's see what he does when he becomes president."

The cynicism is not unusual in a country where politics often trump policy. Obama's candidacy has been embraced by the National Front of Afghanistan, the country's largest opposition party, and the party most likely to field a promising candidate against Karzai in elections slated for September 2009. Spokesman Hussain Sancharaki supports Obama's pledge to send more troops and funding, but mostly he is thrilled by a comment Obama made to CNN a few weeks ago that seemed to question Karzai's leadership, one that may make the senator's first meeting with the Afghan president a bit awkward. "I think the Karzai government has not gotten out of the bunker and helped to organize Afghanistan and (the) government, the judiciary, police forces, in ways that would give people confidence," he told CNN. "So there are a lot of problems there."

Indeed. Republican candidate John McCain, who has already visited Afghanistan, has accused Obama of making uninformed foreign policy plans. This weekend's visit may go a long way towards establishing Obama's foreign policy credentials, but it is questionable how much he will actually learn while on the ground. Like president Karzai, who rarely leaves the palace for fear of assassination attempts, Obama will be equally sheltered from the real Afghanistan. According to the Associated Press but as of yet unconfirmed by the US military, Obama visited US troops in the relatively safe province of Nangahar. While not exactly a Potemkin village, the provincial capital Jalalabad is one of the country's rare success stories, and far removed from the devastating instability that plagues most of the country. "I don't think that he will get the reality of Afghanistan," says Sancharaki. "Part of his visit will be with the American troops, and part in the palace, so that is only one angle. It would be better for Obama to talk to civil society, media and political parties to get the reality of Afghanistan."

Once such reality that he may miss is that while more troops will certainly help the country's security situation, they will not win the war. Afghanistan is besieged by a multitude of problems, not least of which is the endemic corruption that has eviscerated any faith the Afghans once had in their government. "Russia came here with 150 thousand troops, and you know what happened," says businessman Mohammad Akbar Bhai. "Even if you bring one million troops in Afghanistan, the West cannot win. What we need is honest government. If a river starts in mud, everything downstream will be dirty."

— With reporting by Ali Safi/Kabul