That Mr. Obama had never before made a trip as president to Afghanistan – the place where he is sending 30,000 additional troops – was partly a result of bad weather foiling previous plans, officials said. But just as much, it was in indication of how all-consuming the president's drive for healthcare reform had become.
Once called the "forgotten war" when eclipsed by Iraq under President Bush, Afghanistan still has been consigned mostly to the political margins even under Obama – with the notable exception of his months-long debate over whether to send more troops.
The Afghanistan visit Sunday, together with a coming address on the economy Friday, points to a great exhale as the administration and the media broaden their focus from healthcare reform to the other issues facing the country.
Between two offensives
In the case of Afghanistan, the visit comes amid the effort by US and coalition forces to clear the Taliban from strategic areas of the south.
In recent years, the Taliban has drawn its strength from the southern provinces of Kandahar, its birthplace, and Helmand, the center of the opium trade and one major source of the Taliban's funding. Last month's Marjah offensive targeted Helmand. A Kandahar offensive is expected by summer.
Yet the purpose of Obama's visit appears to be a pep talk for the Afghan government as much as American forces.
The Marjah offensive showed the military's ability to drive the Taliban out of areas where they have held sway for years. But the job of making Marjah safe depends on the Afghan government establishing the rule of law and basic services there – something only now under way.
Obama's message: end corruption
In this task, corruption is perhaps the greatest enemy of US efforts.
"Progress will continue to be made ... but we also want to make progress on the civilian front," Obama said after meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, according to the Associated Press, referring to anti-corruption efforts, good governance, and adherence to the rule of law. "All of these things end up resulting in an Afghanistan that is more prosperous and more secure."
US National Security Advisor James Jones emphasized this, telling reporters that Obama implored Mr. Karzai to "battle the things that have not been paid attention to almost since Day 1."
The visit also comes as the US steps up pressure on militant groups that support the Afghan insurgency from Pakistan. US drones recently launched six missile strikes in 11 days in the Pakistani border area of North Waziristan, home of the anti-American, Al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network. Another anti-American, Al Qaeda-linked militant outfit based in Pakistan, Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, is in peace talks with the Afghan government.
Leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister of Afghanistan during the years of civil war after the fall of the Soviet regime in the early 1990s, has vowed to lay down arms if foreign forces leave by the end of the year.
Little progress is expected in the talks.