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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Senator Barack Obama and Afghan President Karzai

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama called the situation in Afghanistan "precarious and urgent" Sunday after meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during an overseas trip meant to burnish his foreign policy credentials.

Afghanistan is also the No. 1 front in the war on terrorism and Washington needs to "finish the job" begun there after the Sept. 11 attacks when U.S.-led and Afghan forces ousted the Islamist Taliban, the Democratic U.S. senator said in a television interview.

"We have to understand that the situation is precarious and urgent .... and I believe this has to be the central focus, the central front, in the battle against terrorism," Obama told the CBS television program "Face the Nation" while in Afghanistan.

Obama, who visited U.S. troops and held private talks with Karzai, said the United States should start planning immediately for a shift of soldiers from Iraq to Afghanistan.

"I think the situation is getting urgent enough that we have to start doing something now," he told CBS.

More than six years after the Taliban was ousted for sheltering al Qaeda, there has been a sharp rise in violence in Afghanistan this year.

The United States has about four times as many troops in Iraq as the 36,000 it has in Afghanistan, yet more U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq in both May and June.

Obama wants to send two more brigades, or 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.

Earlier, Obama discussed terrorism, corruption and drugs with Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since 2001, but said the purpose of this trip was to listen rather than deliver strong messages.

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


The two sides talked about the problems facing Afghanistan and the region, Karzai's spokesman said.

"We discussed things at the broad level, we did not discuss in details, but Senator Obama conveyed his commitment to .... supporting Afghanistan and to continue the war against terrorism with vigor," said spokesman Humayun Hamidzada.

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, one of the responsibilities carried out by the U.S. president.

Obama criticized Karzai last week in an interview with CNN.

"I think the Karzai government has not gotten out of the bunker and helped to organize 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.

Karzai has come under increasing criticism for not taking tough action to clamp down on rampant corruption, tackle former warlords and stamp out record-breaking drug production -- all factors feeding the Taliban insurgency.

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

"We have one president at a time, so it's the president's job to deliver those messages," he said.

Karzai's spokesman said that no matter who won the Nov. 4 U.S. election, Afghanistan and the United States would remain strong allies.

Obama, Hagel and Reed earlier had breakfast with U.S. troops and discussed their experiences in the country.

Obama arrived in Afghanistan Saturday and was briefed by the U.S. commander of NATO-led forces in eastern Afghanistan. (Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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