President Obama Sunday made a surprise visit to Afghanistan where his first stop was a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose rule the administration has criticized as corrupt and ineffective.
It was Obama's first trip as commander-in-chief to the country where, since taking office, he has stepped up American military efforts aimed at ending the Taliban insurgency.
Obama arrived at Bagram Air Force Base at 7:25 pm local time (10:55 a.m. ET in the U.S.) after a 12-hour-46-minute nonstop flight. He then quickly boarded a helicopter and flew to Kabul to meet Karzai at the presidential palace.
National Security Adviser James Jones said one of Obama's purposes in making the visit was to "engage President Karzai...to make him understand that in his second term, there are certain things that have been not paid attention to, almost since day one. That is things like...a merit-based system for appointment of key government officials, battling corruption, taking the fight to the narco-traffickers, which fuels, provides a lot of the economic engine for the insurgents."
Karzai won another term in office last year in an August election marred by widespread fraud that stoked already heightened concerns in Washington about whether his government was capable of asserting itself throughout the country and winning the loyalty of Afghans.
The stakes are even higher now that Obama has committed the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to the country in an effort to defeat the Taliban with the kind of "surge" that was employed in Iraq.
Obama said, in an appearance with Karzai after the visit, that he was "very pleased to see that there's been some excellent efforts in terms of partnering Afghan national security forces with U.S. and coalition forces. We think that points to the direction that all of us are interested in a day when Afghanistan is going to be able to provide for its own security but continue a long-term strategic partnership with the United States."
But he underlined that "we also want to continue to make progress on the civilian process of ensuring that agricultural production, energy production, good governance, rule of law, anti-corruption efforts -- all these things end up resulting in a Afghanistan that is more prosperous, more secure, independent; is not subject to meddling by its neighbors."
Jones told reporters later that Karzai "needs to be seized with how important" the issue of corruption is.
"This is something (dealing with corruption) that simply has to be done," he said. "We have to have the strategic rapport with President Karzai and his cabinet to understand how we are going to succeed this year in reversing the momentum the Taliban and the opposition forces have been able to establish since 2006."
Obama invited Karzai to Washington. The visit will be May 12.
He also said, "One of the main reasons I'm here is to just say thank you for the incredible efforts of our US troops and our coalition partners. They make tremendous sacrifices far away from home, and I want to make sure they know how proud their commander-in-chief is of them."
Later, Obama returned to Bagram and spoke in a big tent to about 2,000 soldiers, mostly from the 82d Airborne, thanking them for their service.
He told the servicemen that "if I thought for a minute that America's vital interests were not served, were not at stake here in Afghanistan, I would order all of you home right away."
"If this region slides backwards, if the Taliban retakes this country and al Qaeda can operate with impunity, then more American lives will be at stake," he said.
"Here in Afghanistan you've gone on the offensive," Obama told the troops. "And the American people back home are noticing. We have seen a huge increase in support ... stateside, because people understand the kinds of sacrifices that you guys are making, and the clarity of mission that you're bringing to bear."