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John J. Kruzel - American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 28, 2010 - President Barack Obama, in a surprise trip that marked his first visit to Afghanistan as U.S. president, underscored his administration's continuing partnership with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government while also pressing for greater reform.
Obama landed under the cover of darkness at Bagram Airfield with a delegation of U.S. officials before flying by helicopter to Kabul, where he met one-on-one with Karzai for about a half hour.
"To the Afghan people," Obama said in remarks after the meeting, "the American people send greetings and are encouraged by the progress that's been made."
Obama highlighted recent military gains in Afghanistan, where a battle in central Helmand province last month routed the Taliban from its former stronghold of Marja. Defense officials have described Marja as an early victory in the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan that Obama unveiled late last year.
"We have seen already progress," Obama said, "with respect to the military campaign against extremism in the region."
But the president said the United States also seeks progress on civilian measures such as anticorruption reforms. The Afghan government has long been accused of cronyism and graft, and Karzai himself has been criticized as being too soft in cracking down on corruption.
"We also want to continue to make progress on the civilian process of ensuring that agricultural production, energy production, good governance, rule of law [and] anticorruption efforts end up resulting in a Afghanistan that is more prosperous, more secure, independent," Obama said.
Such measures, Obama added, would help protect Afghanistan from meddling by its neighbors, and would pave the way for a smoother a transition as the United States and its partners seek to transfer more security responsibility to Afghans.
"I'm very pleased to see that there's been some excellent efforts in terms of partnering Afghan national security forces with U.S. and coalition forces," he said. "We think that points to the direction that all of us are interested in a day when Afghanistan is going to be able to provide for its own security but continue a long-term strategic partnership with the United States."
The president said he extended an invitation to Karzai for a follow-on meeting in Washington in May to discuss mutual long-term strategic interests.
Obama also met met with top American officials and delivered a message to U.S. troops at Bagram Airfield.
"One of the main reasons I'm here is to just say thank you to the incredible efforts of our U.S. troops and our coalition partners," Obama said. "They make tremendous sacrifices far away from home, and I want to make sure that they know how proud their commander in chief is of them."
Karzai thanked Obama and the American people for the help the United States has given to Afghanistan for the past eight years.
"And I hope that this process will continue into the future towards a stable, strong, peaceful Afghanistan that can sustain itself, that can move forward into the future with confidence and better hopes," he said.