Obama Afghan visit more for home front than frontline

Although Hamid Karzai’s aides have been complaining President Obama had not yet visited Afghanistan, he has been in regular contact with him.

President Obama’s whirlwind visit to Afghanistan yesterday was designed more for his home front than for the frontline in Afghanistan. Although Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s aides have been complaining recently that the U.S President had not yet visited Afghanistan, President Obama has been in regular secure video conferences with Mr. Karzai, the last of which happened only ten days ago.

Thus any issues the two leaders needed to discuss, or imperatives President Obama felt he needed to impress upon the Afghan administration, would have been largely done so through these channels.

In the light of such usual use of diplomatic methods, and the fact that the two presidents spent barely 25 minutes talking to each other in Kabul, Obama’s visit to Afghanistan should not be seen as a stark warning to Hamid Karzai to tackle corruption and get his house in order, but more as a visit that finishes a week of personal domestic victories on a high.

After securing his Health Bill on Sunday and the START 2 missile treaty with Russia on Wednesday, this weekend was a good time to visit Afghanistan for the U.S President. It marked his first visit to the country in 14 months in the White House and was especially important since he ordered a surge of 30,000 extra troops into the country in November.

It was for precisely this reason that Obama was attracting criticism on the domestic front from Republicans who saw him as not supporting and valuing the nation’s armed services. His morale boosting visit to Bagram airbase, a hub of U.S military activity, but nowhere near the frontline, is hoped to deliver a swift riposte to these allegations.

In an address to the soldiers stationed at the base, Mr. Obama reiterated that their mission was to “disrupt, deter and defeat” Al Qaeda. In doing so they would “keep America safe and secure”, and help the Afghans win a “hard won peace”. He reassured his soldiers, as their Commander in Chief, that he did not take the decision to send them into harm’s way lightly and that once he committed them to war he would ensure they were fully equipped and supported.

He was also at pains to highlight the debt of gratitude both he and the American people owed their armed services for their efforts. Whilst such commitment, determination and appreciation will no doubt have inspired those serving in Afghanistan, such comments are also tailored to rebuff allegations that the President does not value his military.

Meanwhile, the main body of troops for Obama’s surge will begin arriving in Afghanistan in the next month. Although the Mosthtarak operation grabbed headlines in February, real change will only become possible when these extra boots arrive and begin to patrol the dusty tracks and canals in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Their objectives will be twofold.

Firstly, a “clear and build” mission in Kandahar city and its surrounds, where recent reports indicate that the Taleban are in complete control of many districts. In the near future U.S soldiers will be used to drive them from their strongholds and then keep them from them. In the space this hopefully creates, the U.S’ civilian surge, accompanied by Afghan administrators, will begin providing basic services to win over the population and convince them they are here to stay.

Secondly, in Helmand province, where British troops are under increasingly deadly attack, extra U.S troops will bolster the force laydown, increase patrol activity and reach and, hopefully, deny the increasingly confident Taleban in this area operational and tactical flexibility. In the key Helmand town of Sangin, the most deadly place in the world if you are a British soldier, and a town that continues to suck in manpower and resources for little discernible gains, a pull out by weary British forces and replacement by Americans may be likely.

How the surge pans out we will have to wait and see. What was interesting about President Obama’s Bagram speech was that the rhetoric of “democracy” and “human rights”, once intricately linked with the West’s blueprint for a future of Afghanistan, was missing. In its place the Commander in Chief spoke of “security” and “a lasting partnership founded upon mutual interest and mutual respect” – an indication that negotiations with moderate Taleban envoys continue. As other conflicts have shown us, this may be the real way out of the impasse.

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