Obama visits Afghanistan to thank troops, rally support back home

President Obama's visit to Afghanistan comes just as WikiLeaks cables are bringing fresh attention to grave problems on the war front.

By , Staff writer

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    President Obama speaks to troops at a rally during a surprise visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, on Friday, Dec. 3.
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President Obama addressed US troops Friday on a surprise visit to Afghanistan to thank servicemen and women serving over the holidays and rally support for the war back home.

“On behalf of more than 300 million Americans, we are here to say thank you for everything that you do,” Mr. Obama told a large gathering of uniformed troops at Bagram Airbase outside Kabul.

He made note that nearly one year ago he ordered a surge of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan: “We said we were going to break the Taliban’s momentum and that’s what you’re doing. You’re going on the offensive; [we are] tired of playing defense.”

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Obama emphasized that despite political divisions at home, the nation was united in support of the troops.

American view of the war

On the war itself, however, the American mood has darkened. Half of Americans say the US should no longer be involved in Afghanistan, 60 percent say the war is a lost cause, and 68 percent are worried about the opportunity costs, according to recent polls from Quinnipiac, Bloomberg, and Gallup, respectively.

War weariness is likely to grow with the release of classified diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks and the softening of US deadlines for withdrawal. While the secret cables mostly confirm daily headlines from the war front, many of those headlines had gone unnoticed as Americans struggled with economic woes and mid-term elections that were fought on pocketbook issues.

Now the secret documents have recaptured broader public attention on the conflict and given searing specifics to some of the war’s banal challenges.

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In particular, headlines over the past year have pointed to US frustration with corruption inside the regime of President Hamid Karzai. But the cables – many of which remain unreleased except to a few publications – have told the story more directly:

  • United Arab Emirates customs caught Ahmed Zia Massoud, a former vice president, trying to bring in $52 million in cash. (Mr. Massoud has denied the account.)
  • Of the $200 million collected in trucking fees by the Transportation Ministry, only $30 million gets handed over to the government, the New York Times reported, citing a cable.
  • The US embassy judged only one of Afghanistan’s new cabinet ministers to be free from allegations of bribery, according to another cable cited by the Times.
  • One of the only officials to be sacked for corruption – the former mayor of Kabul – may have been targeted by the Afghan government because he was actually fighting corruption, the US embassy surmised in another such cable.

Critics have pointed to the rampant corruption as a crucial problem for US efforts designed at winning over the Afghan population. The cables highlight how some of the same reservations are held by top American officials on the ground.

“The meeting with AWK [Karzai’s half-brother] highlights one of our major challenges in Afghanistan: how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt,” reads one 2009 cable signed off on by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.

Obama’s speech did not mention the Afghan government nor the counterinsurgency imperative of winning over the Afghan population. Instead, the language was mostly that of counterterrorism. The commander-in-chief said the US military was going on the offense against the Taliban as an extremist ally of Al Qaeda in order that Afghanistan cannot be used as “a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States.”

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On his trip, Obama met with Mr. Eikenberry and Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Afghanistan. Petraeus introduced Obama to the troops as the leader who “made the tough decision to give us the resources" enabling progress in Afghanistan.

But sand storms scuttled a planned meeting between Obama and Mr. Karzai, and an opportunity for improving their strained relationships.

Karzai could hardly be shocked by the unflattering words found in the cables given his very public spats with Obama administration officials.

The cables, however, do not help US efforts to try to work with – and carefully around – the Afghan president. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, nonetheless, have both called him to express regret that the classified cables were leaked.

Karzai’s reelection has left the US little alternative but to support his government, while Karzai, too, has no alternative but to rely on US military power.

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