KABUL // Barack Obama, the US president, made a surprise visit to Afghanistan yesterday for a firsthand look at the eight-year-old war he inherited and dramatically escalated. After an overnight flight from Washington, the president landed in Afghanistan for a stay of just a few hours, all in darkness. He flew by helicopter from Bagram air field to the capital, where he met the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and his cabinet, at the presidential palace.
"The American people are encouraged by the progress that has been made," Mr Obama told Mr Karzai in front of reporters after the talks. The US president however pressed Mr Karzai, whom he invited to visit Washington in May, to "continue to make progress" on the civilian front, including on good governance, the fight against corruption and the rule of law. It was Mr Obama's second stop in a war zone as commander-in-chief, coming about a year after a similarly secretive trip to Iraq. Mr Karzai was notified about Mr Obama's visit just an hour before he arrived, the White House said. This trip, its secrecy forced by security concerns, was an extraordinary capstone to a momentous week in Mr Obama's presidency. He achieved the most ambitious domestic policy initiative in decades with a historic healthcare overhaul and scored his first major foreign policy achievement with a significant new arms control treaty with Russia.
In December, Mr Obama ordered 30,000 additional forces into the fight against an entrenched Taliban insurgency that seeks to retake the control of Afghanistan that the militant group lost when the United States invaded in 2001. Those new US troops are still arriving and most are expected to be in place by summer, for a full force of roughly 100,000 US troops. There were about 34,000 when Mr Obama took office.
The trip came just two days after a threatening new audio message from the al Qa'eda leader, Osama bin Laden, believed to be hiding along the ungoverned border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The White House made no advance announcement of the visit, which officials said had been long desired by the president but delayed by weather and other logistical obstacles. Mr Obama had gone on Friday afternoon to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, from which unnoticed departures are easier because of its secluded mountain location. The small contingent of White House aides and media allowed on the trip were sworn to secrecy, and the White House allowed details of Mr Obama's activities on the ground to be reported only after they were under way.
It was Mr Obama's second visit to Afghanistan; the first was in 2008 when, as a presidential candidate and US senator, he joined an official congressional delegation. * Associated Press