Obama presses Karzai in surprise Afghan visit

US President Barack Obama pressed Afghan leader Hamid Karzai to stand resolute against corruption and rallied cheering troops to defeat the Taliban during a surprise night-time visit to Kabul.

Obama flew into Afghanistan under the cover of darkness aboard Air Force One late Sunday for his first visit to the country since taking office more than a year ago.

"We are here to help Afghans forge a hard-won peace while realising the extraordinary potential of the Afghan people," the commander-in-chief said in a rousing speech to US troops at Bagram Airfield just outside Kabul.

US President Barack Obama (right) with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on March 28

The war against the Taliban, now in its ninth year, is claiming record fatalities among the 121,000 US-led and NATO troops based in Afghanistan, where Obama is surging reinforcements before a withdrawal planned for July 2011.

"We're going to deny Al-Qaeda safe haven. We're going to reverse the Taliban's momentum," said Obama, who spent less than six hours in Afghanistan and was due back in Washington on Monday morning.

Obama's visit -- which included briefings with US General Stanley McChrystal, the overall commander of foreign troops, and US ambassador Karl Eikenberry -- gave him the chance to assess the progress of his new strategy.

The president has put his personal stamp on what he calls a "war of necessity" in Afghanistan, ordering more than 50,000 extra troops to the country to bring the total foreign deployment to 150,000 by August.

Obama pressed President Karzai, re-elected in controversial elections last year, to step up the fight against corruption and the drugs trade, and invited the Afghan leader to visit Washington on May 12.

The US president, who has had a testy relationship with Karzai since taking office in January 2009, also urged him to "continue to make progress" on the civilian front, including on governance, graft and rule of law.

"We had a good discussion of the issues between our two countries, about the region, and of continued struggle against extremism and terrorism," Karzai said at a late-night ceremony at the presidential palace.

Later, dressed in a leather bomber jacket, Obama told cheering troops at Bagram he was confident they would get the job done to stop the Taliban from regaining power and halt Al-Qaeda.

"Al-Qaeda and their extremist allies are a threat to the people of Afghanistan and a threat to the people of America, but they're also a threat to people all around the world," Obama said.

"My main job here today is to say thank you on behalf of the entire American people. You are part of the finest military in the history of the world. And we are proud of you.

"Our strategy includes a military effort that takes the fight to the Taliban while creating the conditions for greater security and a transition to the Afghans.

"But also a civilian effort that improves the daily lives of the Afghan people and combats corruption, and a partnership with Pakistan and its people, because we can't uproot extremists and advance security and opportunity unless we succeed on both sides of the border," he said.

Obama's visit coincided with a Washington Post poll published Sunday that said 53 percent of Americans approve of how he is handling the situation in Afghanistan.

It was the highest rating of any issue on the president's agenda, and matched his overall approval rating of 53 percent, the newspaper said. Thirty-five percent disapproved of Obama's dealings in Afghanistan.

The first offensive of Obama's sweeping new strategy is unfolding in Helmand province, with Taliban strongholds in Kandahar among future targets in the south where the worst of the insurgency is concentrated.

In his speech, he pointed to successes including flushing the Taliban out of a stronghold in Helmand's Marjah region, recent strikes against Al-Qaeda leaders, and Pakistan's help in cracking down on militant hideouts.

Obama announced in December that he was pouring 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, following an earlier authorisation for 21,000 extra forces, in a gamble to end the war and start a US pullout in July 2011.

Around 136 foreign troops have died in Afghanistan so far this year, compared to 78 in the first three months of 2009.


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