July 20, 2008 / 9:27 AM / 11 years ago

Obama meets Afghan President Karzai in Kabul

(Adds Afghan presidential statement paragraph 4)

By Jon Hemming

KABUL, July 20 (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama met Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday, the second day of a visit to Afghanistan that is meant to bolster the senator’s foreign policy credentials.

Obama has previously criticised Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the hardline Islamist Taliban in 2001, but said the purpose of this trip was to listen rather than deliver strong messages.

Television pictures showed a relaxed Obama talking to Karzai, flanked by fellow senators Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed, and Afghan ministers at the heavily guarded presidential palace in Kabul.

"The two sides in the meeting spoke about the situation in Afghanistan and the region, the global campaign against terrorism and narcotics, and similarly about the further expansion of ties between America and Afghanistan," the Afghan presidential palace said in a statement.

The Illinois senator will also visit Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain on a foreign tour he hopes will help answer Republican criticism that he does not have the experience to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Obama criticised Karzai last week in an interview with CNN.

"I think the Karzai government has not gotten out of the bunker and helped to organise Afghanistan, and the government, the judiciary, police forces, in ways that would give people confidence. So there are a lot of problems there," he said.

Once the darling of the West, Karzai has come under increasing criticism at home and abroad for not taking tough action to clamp down on rampant corruption, tackle former warlords and stamp out record-breaking drug production — all factors that feed the growing Taliban insurgency.

But Obama, asked before the trip whether he would have tough words for Karzai and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, replied "I’m more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking."

"And I think it is very important to recognise that I’m going over there as a U.S. senator. We have one president at a time, so it’s the president’s job to deliver those messages," Obama said.


Obama earlier had breakfast with U.S. troops in Kabul and talked about their experiences in the country, which has seen a sharp rise in violence this year.

"They had breakfast at Camp Eggers with the soldiers," said U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Johnson. "They sat with the soldiers, shared stories with the soldiers about what is going on in Afghanistan ... shared experiences."

Obama arrived in Afghanistan on Saturday and was briefed by the U.S. commander of NATO-led forces in eastern Afghanistan.

More than six years after U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban for sheltering al Qaeda leaders behind the Sept. 11 attacks, there has been a sharp rise in violence this year.

The Taliban have grown "more effective and more aggressive", U.S. military chiefs say and attacks in the east, along the porous Pakistani border where most U.S. troops are based, have risen by 40 percent this year.

Obama wants to send two more brigades, some 7,000 U.S. troops, to Afghanistan and shift the emphasis from what he calls the Bush administration’s "single-minded" focus on Iraq.

He has also said he will not tolerate the militant sanctuaries in Pakistan which NATO blames for the spike in violence inside Afghanistan.

The United States has about four times as many troops in Iraq as the 36,000 it has in Afghanistanm, but more U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq in both May and June. (Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Tim Pearce)

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