KABUL (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama met the commander of U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday to talk about the war he says is not getting enough attention from the Bush administration.
Obama’s trip, which will also take him to Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain, is aimed at proving his foreign policy credentials.
“I want to, obviously, talk to the commanders and get a sense, both in Afghanistan and in Baghdad of ... what ... their biggest concerns are,” he told reporters before boarding a military flight from the United States. “And I want to thank our troops for the heroic work that they’ve been doing.”
Obama wants to send two more brigades, or about 7,000 U.S. troops, to Afghanistan to shift emphasis from what he calls the Bush administration’s “single-minded” focus on Iraq. He has called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 16 months.
The United States has about four times more troops in Iraq than the 36,000 it has in Afghanistan. But more of its soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in both May and June than in Iraq.
It is more than six years since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban for sheltering al Qaeda leaders behind the September 11 attacks, but violence has risen sharply in recent months and there are few signs the insurgency is weakening.
Obama and fellow senators Jack Reed and Chuck Hagel got a briefing from U.S. General Jeffrey Schloesser, the commander of NATO-led forces in the east and U.S.-led coalition forces across the country at Bagram airfield, close to the capital Kabul.
“Following the briefing, the senators were able to meet service members from their respective states at Bagram, and also at Jalalabad Air Field,” the U.S. military said in a statement.
Jalalabad is close to the eastern border with Pakistan. NATO says attacks are up by 40 percent in the east this year due to ceasefires between Pakistan and militants in its tribal belt.
Obama’s Republican presidential rival, John McCain, also wants three more brigades in Afghanistan and pledged to find the extra troops by “asking NATO to send more and by sending U.S. troops as they become available.”
But despite the violence, many Afghanistan analysts doubted sending more troops was the answer.
“I don’t think decreasing or increasing troop numbers is going to yield a long-term stability here, or peace,” said Matt Waldman, policy adviser to Oxfam International.
More effective aid, rural development and conflict resolution at a local level are the real priorities, he said.
Foreign spending on aid and development is dwarfed by that spent on military operations in Afghanistan. The U.S. military alone now spends some $100 million a day, aid agencies say, compared with $7 million a day spent by all aid donors.
McCain criticised Obama for announcing his strategy on Afghanistan before leaving for the fact-finding trip.
“Apparently, he’s confident enough that he won’t find any facts that might change his opinion or alter his strategy. Remarkable,” McCain said in his weekly radio spot.
“This is similar to the mistake Senator Obama made when he confidently declared that the surge in Iraq could not possibly reduce sectarian violence there,” he said. “And it is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to victory over the Taliban.”
Asked whether he would have some tough talk for Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Maliki, Obama said: “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 last week criticised Karzai in an interview with CNN.
“I think the Karzai government has not gotten out of the bunker and helped to organise Afghanistan,” he said.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan in Washington and Jonathon Burch in Kabul; Editing by Douglas Hamilton