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UPDATED Afghanistan Special: Mr Obama's Wild Ride --- Why?


UPDATE 0925 GMT: We've added new information and analysis.

So let me get this right. The President of the US devotes 25 hours to a round-trip flight to spend six hours in Afghanistan, of which a total of 20 minutes is with the Afghan President?  


Afghanistan Video: Obama Speech to US Troops (28 March)

1. Was Obama delivering a message to Afghan leader Hamid Karzai that he could trust to no one else? If so, what could that important message be? A dressing down of Karzai? (But note that Obama's special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who is persona non grata in Afghanistan after last August's post-election shouting match with Karzai, did not make the trip.) Confirmation that the US military was going to pursue the offensive, long dangled before the media, against the southern Afghan city of Kandahar? 

2. Or was this just a giant pep talk/photo opportunity for Obama in front of US troops overseas? 

3. Or both? 

Have to honest here: I don't have an answer to this puzzle. Nor, however, do many in the "mainstream" media. The BBC, in stolid BBC tones, tried to get away with "reassurance to Afghan allies" who had not been visited by Obama during his Presidency --- frankly, that's pretty lame, since the President could have done this in a more organised and less last-minute fashion. (Even this was muddled in White House statements to the press: some advisors said the Afghans only had an hour's notice; some said Karzai's office was told last Thursday.) CNN has no information beyond the asserted "need to wipe out terror networks". 

Helene Cooper of The New York Times proclaims: 
President Obama personally delivered pointed criticism to President Hamid Karzai in a face-to-face meeting on Sunday, flying here for an unannounced visit that reflected growing vexation with Mr. Karzai as America’s military commitment to defeat the Taliban insurgency has deepened.... 

While Mr. Obama said “the American people are encouraged by the progress that has been made,” as he stood beside Mr. Karzai at the heavily fortified presidential palace, Mr. Obama also emphasized that work remained to be done on the governance issues that have frustrated American officials over the past year. “We also want to continue to make progress on the civilian process,” Mr. Obama said. He mentioned several areas, including anticorruption efforts and the rule of law. 

The problem with Cooper's supposed scoop of an answer is that it is based on cherry-picking Obama's public statement to the press after his brief encounter with Karzai. As she admits --- lower in the story --- "the language used by Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai in their private discussions was not disclosed". So here's the key message: 
Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, told reporters on Air Force One en route to Afghanistan that the administration wanted Mr. Karzai to “understand that in his second term, there are certain things that have not been paid attention to, almost since Day 1.” 

General Jones said that the Afghan president “needs to be seized with how important” the issue of corruption, in particular, is for American officials.

Washington Post reporters take the same line, quoting Jones, "In [Karzai's] second term, there are certain things that have not been paid attention to, almost since Day One." More significantly, the Post gets confirmation from a Karzai adviser and former Foreign Minister, Rangin Spanta, that the discussion with Obama focused on corruption, reconstruction, and "strengthening Afghan state entities". 

An EA reader passes on the slightly different take on Al Jazeera English TV that the President's message was that Karzai should take on a more commander-in-chief role regarding the war so that it eventually becomes Karzai’s war instead of Obama’s. Al Jazeera English's website, however, sticks with the corruption-first theme.

Whichever of the versions you choose above, here's the take-away point: the Americans are now so distrustful of Karzai that the President had to personally lay down the law, taking more than a day out to deliver the message. The supposedly regular conference calls between Obama and Karzai just wouldn't do. If true, that tells you how solid this US-Afghan relationship is and/or how big the stakes are going to be in the near-future.

But then pause for a moment: if this was really the key meeting to declare the big push against the Taliban and other insurgents, why no more than 30 minutes? Surely a momentous decision like this would merit just a bit more discussion. Did Obama take only a half-hour because he wanted to show who was boss, giving Karzai no more of his time? Or did Karzai --- the man who secured a dubious election win in defiance of the US Government, who sent Obama's envoy packing, who has reduced the US Ambassador to a shamed figurehead --- set the limit?

My suspicion is that Washington, on the verge of a military show that will test Obama's decision to follow his commanders and go boots-first in the US intervention, still isn't secure about the Afghan President. If so, however, the Obama Administration has just fired its biggest shot possible, short of trying to toss Karzai out. There is no more political space if Karzai continues to be a corruption/drug/mismanagement/backroom-dealing problem. 

And in the case, the American ride will be far wilder than that taken by Mr Obama in the last 48 hours.

Reader Comments (9)

Aljazeera's reporters mentioned last night that Obama holds frequent conference calls with Karzai, and this last-minute visit was a way of putting much more pressure on Karzai to: 1) take on a more commander-in-chief role regarding the war so that it eventually becomes Karzai's war instead of Obama's; 2) finally put up a serious fight against corruption and narco-traffickers; and 3) get his cabinet together. They also pointed out that Kandahar (where they reported from) was totally in control of the Taliban and so dangerous they couldn't report from the street at night, and that the Marja offensive was a cakewalk in comparison with wait awaits the internationals forces in Kandahar. Obama's visit to the US troops was therefore probably because they would need all the morale they can get before going into a battle which may be the 'Falluja' of Afghanistan.

They characterised the secrecy of the visit as "Obama's pulling a Bush on us, isn't he?" :-)

Here's a time line of the visit for anyone who didn't follow this news, and for people like me who at first couldn't believe the 20 minutes cited by Scott in his intro ;-)
From Sunset To Sunrise, A Visit Shrouded In Secrecy

An interview with one of the US reportes (NPR) that went along:
Obama Makes Surprise Visit To Afghanistan

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

Obama may have wanted to deliver the pink slip himself, “Karzai, you are fired.”

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

Obama & Dems Handlers Playing The 'Mo' Game

As the days have elapsed since the Health Bill vote, Obama's handlers have rolled out a prepared classic strategy designed to overcome the stagnation of the
last year and generate some 'momentum'.

First the nuclear arms reduction deal with Russia, now a 'surprise' photo-op trip to Afghanistan.

Behing the scenes, Democrats fearing the backlash on health were surely briefed about the administration's tactical plan to try save their skins in the upcoming
November elections.

It boils down to this:

"Dammed if you do, but doomed if you don't"


The anti-Wall St and anti-Big Gov vote is solidly against the Democrats. Many middle-ground voters have long ago abandoned the Obama 'Change' meme. Their only hope is to at least retain the Democratic loyalists.

So: Ram the Health bill through. Ditto with a Climate bill.

Later, try to regain enough of those middle-ground voters.

That's what this is all about.
Take a bow David Axelrod.
Hope it works out for you.

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFintan Dunne

A somewhat different explanation is offered by Spiegel magazine, which notes that Obama visited Afghanistan only two days after Bin Laden had issued a new video menacing to kill feasible US hostages, if Khalid Sheykh Mohammad is sentenced to death during the planned trial in the States.,1518,686085,00.html
The caption however says Obama urged Karzai to fight against corruption.

By the way, yesterday I saw a short report on German police instructors in Afghanistan on German TV, saying that up to 16 % of Afghan police trainees are drug-addicted. There is more than one problem to solve in this deplorable country...

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

Megan (post 2),
:-). I bet they wish they had installed a different puppet before bringing democracy to the Afghan people.

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

Fintan Dunne,

You forgot Immigration bill.

About 10,000 people went to Nevada this last weekend to give Senator Reid the pink slip he worked so hard to earn.

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

RE: "An EA reader passes on the slightly different take on Al Jazeera English TV that the President’s message was that Karzai should take on a more commander-in-chief role regarding the war so that it eventually becomes Karzai’s war instead of Obama’s. Al Jazeera English’s website, however, sticks with the corruption-first theme."

That was me. For the record, I listed (post1) the three main points made by AJE's TV report, but the numbers are not meant to indicate order of importance. Also, AJE's website stories often do not go into as much detail as their TV reports.

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

M.K. Badrakumar takes a different view -

Karzai's China-Iran dalliance riles Obama

Oh tempora oh mores! Tsk tsk yet another sign-of-imperial-decline - even US puppets ain't what they used to be.

P.S. on same general topic i.e. increasing unreliability of puppets - just in case you missed it here's a video of the ineffable Berlusconi bowing to kiss the ring of Gheddafi-of-all-people at the Arab League summit...
...which he attended as honoured guest + close personal friend of the said Libyan strongman and fulsomely addressed highlighting Italy's "special ties" to the Arab world while loudly demanding fast n' total Israeli relinquishment of both East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights - the latter inspired by his current "special-friendship-promotion" thingy with Syria - all that only a couple of weeks after having declared Italy's undying devotion to Israel! Italians not exactly surprised as a few months back the former CIA+P2+mafia "asset" who current heads my country had previously declared himself both the "US's best friend" and "Russia's best friend" - in the SAME WEEK.

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterparvati_roma

RE the former CIA+P2+mafia “asset” who currently heads your country, his delusions of grandeur have blinded him into thinking he can somehow attain the heights of Il Divo Giulio, whereas he's nothing but a buffone.

March 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

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