KABUL, Afghanistan - Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama met yesterday with President Hamid Karzai and later reiterated his call for additional US forces to deal with conditions in Afghanistan that he described as "precarious and urgent," capping a two-day tour as casualties continued to mount from violence in the war-torn country.
Obama joined Karzai for a "working lunch," marking the first meeting for the Afghan president and the presumptive Democratic nominee. Obama's colleagues in the congressional delegation visiting Afghanistan, Senators Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, and Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, also were at the lunch, said Humayun Hamidzada, Karzai's chief spokesman.
Hamidzada said the heads of Afghanistan's ministries of defense and foreign affairs, and Karzai's national security adviser, attended the nearly two-hour meeting.
Obama, interviewed in Afghanistan for CBS's "Face the Nation," called the country the "central front on our battle against terrorism." He said the Iraq war had distracted attention away from this critical battlefront and that it is now time to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq and shifting more military resources into Afghanistan.
"If we wait until the next administration, it could be a year before we get those additional troops on the ground here in Afghanistan, and I think that would be a mistake," he said. "I think the situation is getting urgent enough that we've got to start doing something now."
Obama also said that the United States should press neighboring Pakistan harder to help eliminate the terrorist sanctuaries and training camps along the border that are fueling the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. "I think that message has not been sent," he said in implicit criticism of the current administration.
Obama's visit to Afghanistan marked the first leg of a foreign tour that will to take him to Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France, and Britain between now and the end of the week.
From Afghanistan, Obama flew to Kuwait. The state news agency KUNA reported that he met with the Gulf Arab state's emir, Sabah Ahmad al-Sabah. Obama was expected to continue on to Iraq for meetings with US and Iraqi officials and to speak with US military personnel today.
In a statement issued after the meeting with Karzai, Obama, Hagel, and Reed said their trip had been aimed at assessing whether the United States has the right strategy and resources to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
"Our message to the Afghan government is this: We want a strong partnership based on 'more for more' - more resources from the United States and NATO, and more action from the Afghan government to improve the lives of the Afghan people," they said.
Karzai and the three US politicians discussed topics including education, healthcare and the state of the Afghan National Army and Afghan national police.
"The discussions focused on the significant progress that we've made but also on the unmet challenges we still have ahead of us," Hamidzada said.
Obama has made the US-led military mission in Afghanistan a central plank in his campaign platform, calling for 7,000 additional troops to be sent to the country as part of an overall drawdown in the number in Iraq.
He has said that, if elected, he would remove combat forces over a 16-month period and has repeatedly called for more troops and more resources in Afghanistan to fight the mounting threat from a Taliban resurgence and Al Qaeda.
"Losing is not an option when it comes to Al Qaeda, and it never has been," he said on "Face the Nation," "and that's why the fact that we engaged in a war of choice when we were not yet finished with that task was such a mistake."
The Illinois senator and his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, have sparred intensely over the progress in both wars and how best to reshape US military missions.
That debate continued yesterday on the morning talk shows and elsewhere. McCain's campaign issued a statement highlighting comments from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, raising doubts about the wisdom of removing combat forces from Iraq over the next two years, as Obama has advocated.
The McCain campaign statement noted, "Barack Obama says he wants a 'safe and responsible' withdrawal from Iraq, but is stubbornly adhering to an unconditional withdrawal that places politics above the advice of our military commanders, the success of our troops, and the security of the American people."
On Saturday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq was quoted in the German magazine Der Spiegel as embracing Obama's 16-month withdrawal timetable, causing a stir at the White House. Officials at the US embassy in Baghdad contacted Maliki's office to express concern and seek clarification on the remarks, according to White House spokesman Scott Stanzel.
Later in the day, a Maliki aide released a statement saying the remarks had been mistranslated and misunderstood. Der Spiegel said it was standing by the quotations.
The meeting with Karzai took place a few hours after Obama, Reed, and Hagel met with US troops at Camp Eggers, a heavily fortified US base in the Afghan capital.
Karzai and Obama met over a traditional Afghan meal of rice, chicken, and mutton at the presidential palace a little more than a week after Obama pointedly criticized Karzai's leadership in the face of deteriorating security conditions. In an interview with CNN, Obama said Karzai had "not gotten out of the bunker" to help the country develop.
Karzai's spokesman declined to say directly whether the two touched on the senator's recent remarks, but he said Obama's comment was not without merits.
"We didn't see that as a criticism per se because there is a degree of realism in that statement and that is the fact that while we are making significant progress in rebuilding our country," Hamidzada said.