KABUL, Afghanistan – Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai for almost two hours Sunday in a friendly discussion that addressed some of the troubled country’s challenges but avoided confrontation over touchy issues such as civilian casualties, militants in Pakistan or Obama’s recent criticism of Karzai.
The president, several top Afghan officials and the U.S. congressional delegation talked broadly about progress and problems since a U.S.-led invasion forced out the Taliban in late 2001, said Humayun Hamidzada, the spokesman for Karzai. “The Afghan tradition is that you welcome your visitor and you focus on the positive,” Hamidzada said.
He said the government would welcome Obama or Republican John McCain as U.S. president, but it prefers to press policy concerns with the administration in office.
Obama and his traveling companions, Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., arrived in Afghanistan under heavy secrecy Saturday. During their trip, they also met with U.S. troops, NATO officials, U.S. officials and a popular governor in eastern Afghanistan.
The two-day visit by Obama was his first to Afghanistan, which has become central to his presidential campaign and struggled against an insurgency. Obama believes the United States should reduce troops in Iraq to focus on fighting militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was expected to leave Sunday for Iraq, part of a world tour that also will take him to the Middle East and Europe.
Obama said his efforts to reach out to foreign leaders reflect his goal of shifting U.S. foreign policy away from what he called the “unilateral” approach of the Bush administration to one based on “partnership” with foreign allies.
McCain, the Arizona senator, is a Vietnam War hero who has visited Afghanistan and Iraq multiple times and made foreign affairs a centerpiece of his campaign.
The Illinois senator recently chided Karzai’s government for spending too much time in the bunker and not enough on reconstruction. Hamidzada said the subject did not come up in Sunday’s meeting and the Afghan government did not see it as a criticism.
“It is a reality of Afghanistan,” Hamidzada said, adding that the government’s resources have been sapped by the fight against guerrillas in the south. The Afghan officials told the congressional delegation that more girls are in school and health care has improved since the Taliban regime was toppled. But they also talked about Afghanistan’s significant problems: corruption, drugs and militants.
Earlier Sunday, Obama, who declared conditions in Afghanistan “precarious and urgent,” urged the Defense Department to prepare plans for a two-brigade increase in U.S. troop strength there that he has advocated.
“I think what it’s important for us to do is begin planning for those brigades now,” he said. “If we wait until the next administration, it could be a year before we get those additional troops on the ground here in Afghanistan. And I think that would be a mistake.”
Obama’s meeting with Afghan officials, which lasted an hour and 45 minutes at the presidential palace, included a traditional lunch of mutton, chicken and rice mixed with raisins and carrots.
During their visit, he and the other senators ate breakfast with U.S. troops in Kabul. Each senator met with a small group of soldiers and sailors from his own state and discussed hometowns and the situation in Afghanistan, said Lt. Col. Dave Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman.
They also talked about the presidential campaign over their breakfast of bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy.
“It was social and light talk,” Johnson said. “The food was good but the companionship and friendship was better.”
Obama said that kind of meeting is his favorite thing to do.
He spoke briefly to a military reporter covering the event, according to CNN.
“To see young people like this, who are doing such excellent work with so much dedication and pride, it makes you feel good about the country,” Obama said. “You want to make sure that everybody back home understands how much pride people take in their work here and how much sacrifice people are making. It’s outstanding.”
The delegation then visited leaders at the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, which is in charge of most of the foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Because of security reasons, officials would not confirm when the congressional delegation was to leave Afghanistan.