KABUL, Afghanistan — Under elaborate secrecy, President Barack Obama slipped into Afghanistan on Sunday and told Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Cabinet that they must do more to battle corruption and cronyism in government. Obama later spoke to U.S. troops and affirmed America's commitment to destroying al-Qaida and its extremist allies.
Obama flew here for an unannounced six-hour visit that reflected growing vexation with Karzai while America's military commitment to defeat the Taliban insurgency has deepened.
The visit was conducted entirely under the shroud of nightfall, after Air Force One's flight from the United States. After meeting with Karzai, Obama delivered a speech to U.S. troops and defended his decision to escalate the 8-year-old war, saying their victory is imperative to America's safety.
"Your services are absolutely necessary, absolutely essential to America's safety and security," the president told a lively crowd of about 2,500 troops and civilians at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul. "Those folks back home are relying on you. We can't forget why we're here."
It was Obama's first trip as president to Afghanistan, where the number of U.S. troops killed 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 soldiers to reverse the Taliban's momentum.
"We did not choose this war," Obama reminded the troops, recalling the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and warning that al-Qaida was still using the region to plan terrorist strikes against the United States and its allies. "We are going to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al-Qaida and its extremist allies."
Obama had gone Friday afternoon to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., from which unnoticed departures are easier because of its secluded mountain location. The small contingent of aides and media brought on the trip were sworn to secrecy. He arrived in Kabul just two days after a threatening audio message from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, believed to be hiding along the ungoverned border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"I thought I'd come over and say hello," Obama told the troops in a jaunty remark that set the stage for stark reminders of the terrorist threat that rose from this soil.
"If this region slides backwards," he said, "if the Taliban retakes this country, al-Qaida can operate with impunity, then more American lives will be at stake, the Afghan people will lose their opportunity for progress and prosperity and the world will be significantly less secure. As long as I'm your commander in chief, I'm not going to let that happen."
In December, Obama ordered 30,000 additional forces into the fight against the Taliban. Those new U.S. troops are still arriving and most are expected to be in place by summer, for a full force of roughly 100,000 U.S. troops. There were about 34,000 when Obama took office.
Earlier, Obama held private talks with Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul. Obama demanded accountability from Afghan authorities to make good on repeated promises to improve living conditions, rein in corruption and enforce the rule of law to prevent people from joining the insurgency.
Karzai "needs to be seized with how important that is," said Jim Jones, Obama's national security adviser.
Karzai has raised eyebrows in Washington with recent trips to Iran, China and Pakistan and his welcoming Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kabul this month.
In public remarks, Obama told Karzai and his Cabinet that he was pleased with progress made since their last discussion by secure videoconference on March 15. Obama invited Karzai 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 anticorruption efforts, good governance and adherence to the rule of law.
Karzai promised 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.
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 Unites States, 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.
Air Force One landed at nighttime at Bagram Air Field after a 13-hour nonstop flight for a visit kept secret for security, and Obama boarded a helicopter for the trip to Kabul.
Besides Jones, Obama was accompanied by Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, and a number of other officials from the White House and the Defense Department.
Obama's visit came against a backdrop of tension between Karzai and the Americans that has not substantially abated since Karzai was declared the winner of an election tainted by fraud.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.