By Jeff Mason
KABUL – President Barack Obama arrived in Kabul on Sunday for an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, his first trip to the country since becoming president and commander-in-chief of the U.S.-led war effort.
Obama’s brief trip was expected to include a one-on-one meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, an expanded meeting with Karzai’s cabinet and U.S. officials, and a speech to American military personnel.
A White House official, speaking before the trip, said Obama wanted to get an “on the ground update” about the war from General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander, as well as Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador.
In December Obama ordered the deployment of an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan and set a mid-2011 target to begin withdrawal. That increase is under way, though only a few thousand of the extra troops have arrived.
Obama is expected to greet troops and meet with diplomats while in the country.
Obama’s domestic victory on healthcare reform last week gives him political space to turn his attention to the Afghan war, which has mixed support from the American public amid rising casualties, costs, and corruption among Afghan leaders.
The trip allows Obama to see the early results of his troop increase strategy, show support for military personnel and refute critics who say his focus on passing healthcare legislation has diverted attention from foreign policy.
Obama traveled to Afghanistan during the 2008 U.S. presidential election but has not been back since his victory over Republican Senator John McCain, whose criticism at the time prodded the Democrat’s trip.
The White House official said weather and logistical reasons had thwarted previous attempts at a presidential visit since Obama took office in January 2009.
Much has changed during Obama’s first year in office.
Top U.S. officials held a multi-month review of the White House’s war policy, culminating in the decision to send more troops. When all 30,000 arrive by the end of this year, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will have tripled on Obama’s watch to 100,000, along with more than 40,000 from other NATO countries.
Karzai, who remained in power after a fraud-marred election, has launched a high profile effort to reach for reconciliation with the Taliban, who have made a comeback more than eight years since their ousting by U.S.-backed Afghan militias.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week the timing was still not right for reconciliation with senior Afghan Taliban leaders.
Obama speaks less often to Karzai than did his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, who launched the war in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
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