Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama got his first look at deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan on Saturday, meeting with U.S. military commanders and local officials and touring part of the country by helicopter on the first day of a highly anticipated visit to the Middle East and Europe that drew a fresh rebuke from Republican John McCain.
Obama, traveling as part of an official congressional delegation, landed in Kabul about noon after stopping to visit – and play basketball with – U.S. troops in Kuwait.
After a briefing at Bagram Air Base, he flew by helicopter to the northeastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, where he met with U.S. soldiers and local leaders. From there, according to a U.S.-based aide, Obama set out by helicopter for a look at parts of eastern Afghanistan before returning to Kabul.
The presumptive Democratic nominee shied away from public comments, belying the intense interest in the trip and its political ramifications.
McCain used his new weekly radio address Saturday to attack Obama's foreign policy credentials and judgment. But as McCain sparred with his rival, the Illinois senator received an unexpected boost from Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, who told the German magazine Der Spiegel that he looked favorably on Obama's call for a 16-month timetable for withdrawing most U.S. forces from Iraq.
Al-Maliki's interview was published a day after White House officials announced that President Bush and the Iraqi leader had reached agreement on the need to set a “time horizon” for withdrawing U.S. troops, a significant shift in position by a president who long had resisted applying any semblance of a timeline on U.S. military involvement.
Iraq is expected to be part of the itinerary of Obama's trip, which also includes stops in Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain. The long-planned journey is designed to enhance Obama's foreign policy credentials and allay concerns of some voters that he lacks the experience to serve as commander in chief while the country is engaged in two wars and a global campaign against terrorism.
Obama, who was traveling with Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., called his advisers in the U.S. on Saturday evening from Kabul and, according to spokesman Robert Gibbs, described morale among U.S. forces as high but the situation dire.
“He said that the deteriorating security situation is very, very real and that we've got a lot of work to do as it relates to that,” Gibbs said.
Obama has said he wants to send two additional U.S. combat brigades, about 7,000 troops, to Afghanistan. He has advocated reducing the U.S. force in Iraq so that troops can be redeployed to Afghanistan to quell the rising threat there.
Before his departure, Obama had accused McCain of waffling on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, criticizing the decorated Vietnam War veteran for voting to go to war in Iraq. He called the loss of focus on the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan a “grave mistake.”
On Saturday, McCain said he too supported sending more troops to Afghanistan, from both NATO and the U.S. But he said he also favored strategic and organizational changes in the mission there, patterned on what has worked in Iraq.