After weeks dominated by healthcare, President Barack Obama’s secret trip to Afghanistan turned attention back to another issue whose progress could help define the success of his presidency.
By deciding in December to order a massive buildup to the war he inherited, Obama placed a big bet. Nearly tripling the US presence with 30,000 more troops, he escalated an unpopular war that has seen few gains in its eight years.
As Obama travelled to Afghanistan on Sunday for his first visit to the war zone as president, his aides made clear they understand the challenge and the importance of this year.
Whether Obama was talking to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the presidential palace in Kabul or before 2,500 cheering American troops at Bagram Air Field about 50 miles away, the message during his six hours on the ground was the same: Afghan leaders, particularly Karzai, must step up now and make progress on old demands.
Those include reducing corruption, ensuring the delivery of basic services to Afghans, providing true rule of law with an effective judicial system, turning away warlords and unqualified cronies from government positions and creating an effective national police force and army.
“If Afghan leaders can’t provide government that citizens can trust or security that can hold back Taliban and Al Qaeda extremists, the US can’t leave.” As Obama said, letting the region backslide to the days before the US-led, 2001 invasion ousted Taliban rulers that gave safe haven to Al Qaeda would put more American lives at stake.
“Make no mistake,” he declared, “this fight matters.”