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Obama Afghan Visit Squeezed Between Wikileaks Revelations and Policy Review

  • Nico Colombant

While U.S. President Barack Obama completed a surprise visit to Afghanistan, U.S. analysts are disappointed he did not get to meet with Afghan leaders to get a better grasp of the conflict against Taliban insurgents. The short visit came between WikiLeaks revelations on Afghan-U.S. mistrust and a comprehensive review due this month on U.S. operations.

It was just a little over a year ago Mr. Obama announced he would increase the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan to about 100,000, in an effort to eliminate safe havens for terrorists.

He told some of those new troops at the Bagram Air Force Base Friday he is confident they will succeed. "We said we were going to break the Taliban's momentum and that is what you are doing. You are going on the offense, tired of playing defense, targeting their leaders, pushing them out of their strongholds. Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and more Afghans have a chance to build a more hopeful future," he said.

But a planned trip to Kabul to meet President Hamid Karzai was cancelled because of stormy weather and difficult travel conditions. The cancellation disappointed security analyst Michael O'Hanlon from the Washington-based Brookings Institute. "I think what I would have suggested is that the president spend the night in Afghanistan. Bagram Air Force base is quite safe. I do not think there is any realistic concern about him spending the night there. And then if the weather is good in the morning, take a helicopter to Kabul to see President Karzai and then come home," he said.

The two leaders did speak over a secure telephone link.

The visit came shortly after the unauthorized release of diplomatic cables by the activist website WikiLeaks which appeared to further strain a difficult relationship. One U.S. diplomatic document referred to Mr. Karzai as "a paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation-building."

The trip, which was Mr. Obama's second to Afghanistan as president, also came right before a review assessing the troop surge in Afghanistan.

Analyst Teresita Schaffer with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies says she believes embarrassment caused by the WikiLeaks revelations was the main reason behind the trip. "I can only assume that this is related more to the WikiLeaks than the policy review and that he wanted to try and repair some of the damage at the level of relationships between various Americans and (Mr.) Karzai by showing up in person," she said.

O'Hanlon from the Brookings Institute says he does not believe the review will be that important at this juncture, since he says the full troop surge is only just beginning to have an impact. "There could be some modest policy changes that come out of it, but nothing fundamental about the strategy is likely to change. I think it is more important and more likely that we could see a major reassessment done in the middle of 2011 because by that point you would have expected to see major change," he said.

Mr. Obama has promised to start withdrawing troops in July, but he has said the speed of the drawdown would be based on conditions on the ground. Last month at a NATO summit in Portugal, the U.S. president said his goal was to end the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan only by the end of 2014.

In a report to the U.S. Congress in November, the Pentagon said violence was reaching higher and higher levels in Afghanistan, with only modest progress against what it described as a still strong and expanding Taliban insurgency.

Taliban insurgents as well as al-Qaida extremists also operate out of Pakistani tribal areas, which have been the target of U.S. drone attacks and Pakistani military operations.