KABUL (AFP) Ã¢â‚¬â€œ US President Barack Obama landed in Afghanistan Sunday for a surprise first visit to the country since ordering a huge surge of 30,000 troops in a bid to end the bloody eight-year war.
Obama’s trip, shrouded in secrecy for security reasons, opened with talks with President Hamid Karzai at his palace in Kabul, and he planned to press the Afghan leader on meeting US benchmarks, especially on fighting corruption.
His visit came as US and NATO troops accelerate efforts to break the back of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and provide post-insurgency conditions for the Afghan government to evolve and eventually keep order itself.
The US leader left his Camp David retreat unannounced late Saturday and flew non-stop through the night aboard Air Force One, an AFP photographer traveling with the president said.
After landing at Bagram air base near Kabul after dusk, Obama flew to the palace by helicopter with a small entourage of officials, launching a visit also including meetings with US troops, expected to last only hours.
Obama and Karzai met almost immediately, and they emerged from the palace on a red carpet for a welcoming ceremony, including an Afghan guard of honor and the US and Afghan national anthems.
A senior White House official said the one-on-one meeting would last around 15 minutes before a wider encounter between the president and the Afghan cabinet, to be followed by an encounter with a small group of reporters.
Obama announced in December that he was pouring 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, vowing to “seize the initiative” to end the unpopular war and start a US pullout in July 2011.
The United States and NATO have more than 121,000 troops in Afghanistan, set to rise to 150,000 by August as part of a revamped strategy to reverse the Taliban momentum, particularly in the south, and hasten an end to the war.
Obama’s last visit to Afghanistan came when he was a senator and Democratic presidential nominee in 2008 — but since then he has been involved in a long-distance battle of wills with Karzai, who won re-election last year.
US national security advisor James Jones told reporters the president planned to press Karzai, with whom his administration has had a difficult history, on meeting benchmarks for progress established by the administration.
Jones said on Air Force One that Obama would try to make Karzai understand “that in his second term, there are certain things that have been not paid attention to, almost since Day One.
“That is things like… a merit-based system for appointment of key government officials, battling corruption, taking the fight to the narco-traffickers, which fuels, provides a lot of the economic engine for the insurgents.”
The two leaders would also discuss reconciliation of rival factions in Afghanistan, as US and NATO forces escalate efforts to beat the Taliban, Jones said.
Obama was greeted at Bagram by US war commander General Stanley McChrystal and US ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry.
A senior White House official said that Obama made the trip to have an “important meeting with Karzai and his cabinet.”
The president also wanted to “see the troops and get a first-hand update from General McChrystal,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
After his meetings with Karzai and the Afghan cabinet, Obama was expected to return to Bagram, and to meet US troops and share a meal with them. He was also to watch some college basketball beamed from the United States.
The fast-track war strategy envisages that American troops would start coming home in July 2011, though a full withdrawal could take several years.
Most of the 10,000 extra troops that have arrived so far have been sent to the volatile south, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban insurgency.
Two weeks ago, Obama held a video call with Karzai to discuss the war on the Taliban and progress in eradicating corruption.
They also discussed Afghan efforts at reconciling Taliban fighters, a key part of Kabul’s plan to draw low and mid-level insurgent gunmen back to the government with promises of jobs and cash, the Kabul government said.