KABUL --- On an Afghanistan trip shrouded in secrecy, President Obama demanded accountability from the country's leaders, greater vigilance against corruption and better governing as he widens America's commitment to the 8-year-old war he inherited and then dramatically escalated.
Obama said the U.S. would not quit in Afghanistan, but he made clear that he's looking for an end to direct involvement in the fight against Taliban and al-Qaida extremists. He drove that point home in meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Cabinet in the capital, and in a speech before a cheering crowd of about 2,500 troops and civilians at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul.
At least 945 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to an Associated Press count. The number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan has roughly doubled in the first three months of 2010 compared with the same period last year as Washington has added tens of thousands of additional soldiers.
"The United States is a partner but our intent is to make sure that the Afghans have the capacity to provide for their own security, that is core to our mission," Obama told the troops at Bagram, where he was greeted with thunderous applause. The president said he would never send Americans abroad to fight unless there was a compelling threat. He said a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would put more Americans in danger.
Obama's speech to the troops was the final event on his hours-long trip that occurred entirely at night.
Obama's aides did not try to hide U.S. impatience about Afghanistan's halting efforts to battle corruption and cronyism in government.
"The president (Karzai) needs to be seized with how important that is," said Jim Jones, Obama's national security adviser.
In public remarks at the presidential palace, Obama told Karzai and his Cabinet he was pleased with progress made since his last discussion with Karzai, by secure videoconference on March 15.
Obama invited him to visit Washington on May 12. He also praised recent steps in the military campaign against insurgents. But he stressed that Afghans need to see conditions on the ground get better.
"Progress will continue to be made ... but we also want to continue to make progress on the civilian front," Obama said, 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," he said after a meeting with Karzai.
Karzai promised that his country "would move forward into the future" to eventually take over its own security, and he thanked Obama for the American intervention in his country.
He told Obama he has begun to establish more credible national institutions on corruption and made clear he intends to make ministerial appointments more representative of the multiple ethnic and geographic regions of the country, according to a U.S. account of the meeting.
The U.S. also wants Karzai to cut the flow of money from poppy production and drug trafficking that is sustaining the insurgency. Moreover, the U.S. is pressing him to create an effective, credible judicial system and to halt cronyism and rewards for warlords in government hiring. Both of Karzai's vice presidents are former warlords whose forces allegedly killed thousands of people in the civil war of the 1990s that paved the way for the rise of the Taliban.
The White House insisted that Karzai's Cabinet participate in most of the meetings with Obama. The Cabinet includes a number of ministers favored by the U.S., including the heads of finance, interior and defense, whom the Obama administration wants to empower as a way of reducing the influence of presidential cronies. Some talented Afghan administrators have complained that Karzai marginalized them in an attempt to solidify his powers.
Obama landed in Afghanistan after an overnight flight from Washington. He flew by helicopter from Bagram Air Field to the capital and then back to Bagram for his second stop in a war zone as commander in chief.
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. Initially, the White House said Karzai had been informed of Obama's impending visit just an hour before his arrival. But Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said later that the Afghan government was told about the trip on Thursday.