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Interview: Was Obama's Kabul Visit 'Politically Necessary'?

U.S. President Barack Obama (center) talks with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry (left) and NATO's top military official for Afghanistan, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal at Bagram Air Field in Kabul on March 28.
U.S. President Barack Obama (center) talks with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry (left) and NATO's top military official for Afghanistan, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal at Bagram Air Field in Kabul on March 28.
U.S. President Barack Obama's surprise trip to Afghanistan last weekend lasted just six hours. But the debate continues over why he went, what he said, and what effect it might have. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Raymond DuBois, a senior U.S. military and defense adviser at Washington's Center for International and Strategic Studies and a former aide to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld*, to weigh in.

RFE/RL: Why did Obama choose to go to Kabul now? Was it simply a matter of having the availability in his schedule to do so because his trip to Indonesia was postponed, or were there other factors in play?

Raymond DuBois: Well, very simply, it's been five months since he made his decision to "surge" into Afghanistan (sending 30,000 more troops) and he hasn't been there. And it's about time he [was] on the ground, albeit for a short amount of time.

It's symbolic, and the symbolism is terribly important. It's terribly important to the troops who are on the ground as we all saw in terms of the response he received. He's popular with the troops and it was time for him to be there with them.

Number two, it is very symbolic for him to have met with [President Hamid] Karzai. Karzai has been to China [and] Karzai has hosted the Iranian leader [President Mahmud Ahmadinejad]; this meeting with Karzai wasn't just for Karzai, this meeting was for the Afghan people themselves. And I think, correctly, President Obama's advisers said, "We need to show that we have a disciplined approach to both the war on the ground in Afghanistan, but we also have a disciplined approach with respect to our relationship with the elected leader of the Afghan people, President Karzai."

RFE/RL: Did Obama's victories last week, on health care and finalizing the arms treaty with Russia, help him as he pressed Karzai to meet certain benchmarks on things like rooting out corruption? In other words, did Obama's successes at home help his stature in Kabul?

DuBois: I think that one must be cautious to say that any given event is going to enhance or diminish the stature of the president of the United States. I think that one must, however, look at what his political advisers might be telling the president, [which could be], "Look, Mr. President, your reelection -- if not the midterm elections this November, but certainly your reelection in 2012 -- is going to turn on three very important issues. Number one, economic recovery. Number two, how is health care [reform] being accepted and how is it performing in reality? And number three, Afghanistan."

The issues of health care, he had a victory; economic recovery, the jury is still out, and may very well be out for another year or two; so the third building block of his reelection has got to be success in Afghanistan.

Heart To Heart

RFE/RL: Was Obama's visit meant to be an endorsement of how Karzai is currently doing? Or was it a rebuke for what he's not doing?

DuBois: I think not only is it symbolic that he [sat] down with Karzai -- and substantive when he [reportedly] says to Karzai, "You've got to pay attention to the rule of law, to governance, not just in Kabul, but throughout your country, and to the issues of corruption." But I [think it] is also symbolic for the people of Afghanistan [for Obama] to say, "I, the president of the United States, and my predecessor -- who have invested enormous treasure and blood in your country -- are also going to, as you should, hold your president accountable."

RFE/RL: Obama's visit comes as preparations are intensifying for the May peace jirga between Karzai and some members of the Taliban. If his visit is somehow interpreted by either or both sides as an endorsement of that reconciliation process, is that a good thing?

DuBois: I think that most political advisers, irrespective of political persuasion, would say that's a smart thing to do. And for the president of the United States to say to the president of Afghanistan, "Look, I'm not going to tell you how to [run your country] on the one hand, [but] on the other hand, I think that you are well-served to reach out to those elements of the Taliban who have already indicated, through various sources and various means, that they're willing to sit down individually and collectively."

So that, I think, is a smart thing to do.

* CORRECTION: This text was changed from the original version to correctly describe DuBois as a former staff assistant to Donald Rumsfeld.

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