Like his last clandestine trip to Afghanistan in March, President Obama’s secret arrival Friday in the war-torn country is officially about one thing: Thanking U.S. troops for their service.”I would stress that the focus of our trip is really to see the troops and to see those that work at the embassy,” Gibbs told reporters on board Air Force One.
But nothing is quite so simple. The last week has shown in sharp relief both the new limits of President Obama’s power at home, as he struggled to salvage his domestic agenda in the lame duck Congress, and his continued struggles with finding a legitimate governing partner in Afghanistan, as the WikiLeaks disclosures exposed again the deep corruption that infuses the current, U.S.-backed Afghan regime.
On the Air Force One flight over, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the WikiLeaks disclosures had little impact on the timing of the trip, which had been in the works for a month. “We’re all aware there are serious challenges in Afghanistan,” said Rhodes, adding that the White House had “weathered those kinds of revelations before as it relates to President Karzai and the Afghan government.”
But such comments do not directly address the depth of dissatisfaction, within the U.S. government and the international community, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government. Officially stated, the U.S. policy in Afghanistan has three goals: To break the Taliban’s momentum, to build up Afghan security capability, and to transition to an Afghan force.
The second two legs of that stool have been severely undercut by a Afghan leadership that is widely considered to be not only corrupt but unstable. The documents released by WikiLeaks have show the former Secretary General of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, speculating that Karzai alternated between two personas, “the erratic Pashtun politician” and “the rational national leader.” The files showed that Afghan Vice President Ahmad Zia Masood was caught in a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation entering the United Arab Emerites in 2009 with $52 million, money he was allowed to keep without disclosing its origin or destination. Another 2009 cable, written by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry discussed a meeting with Hamid Karzai’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, as typical of the challenges in the country.
“The meeting with AWK highlights one of our major challenges in Afghanistan: how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government when the key government officials are themselves corrupt,” Eikenberry wrote.
The White House national security team is nearing the end of a review og Afghan strategy that began in October. On the ride over, rather than focus on the challenges of establishing a reliable Afghan partner, Obama aides highlighted the successes that were made at a recent NATO summit in Portugal, including an agreement on transitions of international forces in the country, beginning in 2011 and ending in 2014. While in Afghanistan, on a visit that is expected to last about three hours, Obama has been meeting have a phone conversation with Afghan President Karzai, after bad weather forced officials to scrap a planned face to face meeting. Obama will also meet with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the commanding general, David Petraeus.
Meanwhile, back home, Obama has left behind a Democratic caucus suffering from rising tensions over the course of the lame duck Congress, which now seems unlikely to achieve many of the party’s priorities, including an ending of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, an end to tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, and the passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for immigrants who go to college or serve in the military. Shortly before departing Thursday night, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs put out a statement to try to impose some order on the rising discontent, by pointing out that political realities had forced the president’s hand on one of his signature campaign issues, allowing the tax cuts for the wealthy to expire.
“[B]ecause Republicans have made it clear that they won’t pass a middle class extension without also extending tax cuts for the wealthy, the President has asked Director Lew and Secretary Geithner to work with Congress to find a way forward,” the Gibbs statement read.
Obama has spent much of the last month, since the election, trying to reassert himself on the international stage, with trips to Asia and Europe, and extensive discussions of the need for Congress to approve a new nuclear weapons treaty with Russia. Presidential trips to war zones during the holiday season are also a longtime tradition. This week may have been one of the last windows for Obama to travel to the area, without disrupting the White House holiday party schedule which begins next week, and a planned vacation in Hawaii later this month.
Since the beginning of 2009, 784 U.S. military personnel have died in Afghanistan. Between June 2009 and June 2010, monthly U.S. military spending on the war in Afghanistan grew by 63 percent, from $3.5 billion to $5.7 billion, while the troop strength in the nation grew by 70 percent, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. Troop levels were predicted to reach 98,000 in September of 2010.