KABUL, Afghanistan – President Barack Obama paid a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday as he sought to steel American forces for a tough summer fight and deliver a political jolt to Afghan President Hamid Karzai as he weighs potential peace talks with the Taliban.
In his first visit to Afghanistan since taking office, Obama firmly prodded Karzai to take more decisive steps to reform his corruption-tainted government so both leaders can capitalize on the surge of 30,000 more American troops into the war zone.
Speaking to nearly 2,000 military service personnel, Obama warned they faced “difficult days” in the escalating fight against Taliban insurgents.
“There are going to be setbacks,” Obama said during the 20-minute speech at Bagram Air Field near Kabul. “We face a determined enemy. But we also know this: The United States of America does not quit once it starts on something.”
The six-hour visit came at a pivotal moment for both the U.S.-led military coalition and the Karzai government.
After a successful military campaign in the opium-saturated Helmand province, American forces are preparing for a more challenging showdown in Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
The recent military offensive in Marjah helped shore up flagging public support in America for Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan. But support at home could waver as the fighting intensifies this summer.
At least 77 American servicemen have been killed in Afghanistan this year, more than twice the number killed during the first three months of 2009, according to an Associated Press survey.
At the same time, Karzai is preparing to hold a nationwide conference – a peace jirga – next month to discuss ways to end the eight-year-war by holding peace talks with pragmatic Taliban leaders.
Obama made no public mention of the potential peace talks, a contentious step that has not yet won broad support in Afghanistan or the United States.
Some administration officials believe the U.S.-led military coalition needs to deliver a more decisive blow to the Taliban insurgency before entering any serious peace talks with their leaders.
In his speech, Obama told the American forces their job was to “reverse the Taliban’s momentum” and to disrupt, dismantle, defeat and “destroy al-Qaida and its extremist allies.”
After meeting Karzai for about half an hour, Obama told reporters Americans were “encouraged” by the progress in Afghanistan, but that more work lay ahead.
The Obama administration has struggled to find the right mix of pressure and praise to persuade Karzai to crack down on rampant government corruption that has severely undermined the Afghan president’s political stature.
“The president (Karzai) needs to be seized with how important that is,” Jim Jones, Obama’s national security advisor, told the small pool of reporters brought along on the trip under tight secrecy.
Jones also said Obama wanted to impress upon Karzai the need to step up the fight against the country’s dominant opium trade that helps finance Taliban fighters.
Aides to Karzai and Obama both described the meeting as friendly and businesslike.
The Obama administration said Karzai would visit Washington on May 12, about a week after he is scheduled to wrap up the peace jirga.
“Relations now are stronger than they’ve been in the last eight years,” Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar told McClatchy after the talks.
As with his surprise visit to Iraq last April, the trip to Afghanistan was shrouded in intense secrecy. Air Force One arrived in Kabul early Sunday evening after a nonstop, 13-hour flight from Andrews Air Force Base.
The Obama administration informed Karzai of the plans Thursday, giving the palace little time to prepare for the visit.
After dinner at the presidential palace with Karzai and members of his Cabinet, Obama flew to Bagram where he changed into a leather Air Force One bomber jacket and took off his tie before speaking to troops.