Let Us Talk

July 20, 2008

Sunday: Details of Senator Obama Meeting With Afghan President Karzai

   Senator 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 congressional delegation talked broadly about progress and problems in Afghanistan 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 either Obama or McCain as U.S. president, but prefers to press policy concerns with the administration now in office, not the one that may be.

Obama and his two traveling companions, Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) 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, a country that has become central to his presidential campaign and has struggled against an insurgency. Obama believes the U.S. should reduce troops in Iraq and instead focus on fighting militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama recently expressed disapproval 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 that 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 southern Afghanistan.

The Afghan officials told Obama and the rest of the congressional delegation that more girls are in school and how health care has improved since the Taliban regime was toppled. But they also talked about Afghanistan’s significant problems: corruption, drugs and militants.

The meeting, which lasted for an hour and 45 minutes at the presidential palace, included a traditional Afghan lunch of mutton, chicken and rice mixed with raisins and carrots.

As if to underscore the challenges the U.S. faces in Afghanistan, U.S. and allied troops were blamed for two mistakes Sunday that killed at least 12 Afghans.

NATO said it accidentally killed at least four civilians in southeastern Afghanistan when two mortars landed a half-mile from their target. Three others also may have been killed. Khalilullah Rahmani, the police chief of western Farah province, also said foreign troops mistakenly bombed Afghan police, killing eight.

“It’s a big loss for us,”  Rahmani said. 

The issue of civilian casualties has become a major problem, and many Afghans resent foreign troops for killing non-combatants, even if by accident. The Taliban has effectively exploited the issue.

Hamidzada blamed miscommunication among police, the Afghan army and foreign forces for Sunday’s incidents, but he said Obama and Karzai did not talk about civilian casualties.

Earlier Sunday, Obama 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 talked about hometowns and what was happening 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,” said Obama.

Obama said that kind of meeting is his favorite thing to do. He spoke briefly to a military reporter covering the event.

“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 these young people take in their work here and how much sacrifice they 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.

Obama and the delegation are expected to leave Sunday for Iraq but officials would not confirm when the congressional delegation left Afghanistan because of security reasons.



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