KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Barack Obama met with U.S. troops and received a military briefing on conditions in Afghanistan on Saturday during the opening leg of an overseas trip designed to showcase his appeal in foreign capitals and reassure American voters that he would make a reliable commander in chief.
Obama's trip is scheduled to include a visit to Iraq, and his foreign policy judgment got an unexpected boost from that country's leader, Nouri Maliki, who praised the Democratic presidential candidate's plan for withdrawing U.S. troops over a 16-month period.
In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Maliki embraced Obama's plan, saying: "That, we think, would be the right time frame for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes."
Maliki said he was not making an endorsement in the presidential race.
The presumed Republican nominee, John McCain, has said that conditions in Iraq could worsen if troops were removed at the pace his rival has advised.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, July 21, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraq withdrawal: A headline on Sunday's front page on an article about Democratic candidate Barack Obama's visit to Afghanistan and his withdrawal plan for Iraq referred to Nouri Maliki as the Iraqi president. He is the country's prime minister.
Obama's high-profile trip caps a week on the campaign trail during which he focused on national security and U.S. commitments abroad -- areas that are considered special strengths of McCain.
Seizing on Maliki's favorable comments, the Obama campaign put out a statement from his senior foreign policy advisor, Susan Rice: "Sen. Obama welcomes Prime Minister Maliki's support for a 16-month timeline for the redeployment of U.S. combat brigades. This presents an important opportunity to transition to Iraqi responsibility, while restoring our military and increasing our commitment to finish the fight in Afghanistan."
In a speech last week, Obama said that troops should be drawn down in Iraq and two additional combat brigades deployed in Afghanistan, a war he said the U.S. couldn't afford to lose.
His visit to Afghanistan comes at a time of sharply deteriorating security across the country. Suicide bombings are an everyday occurrence, and the number of foreign troops killed last month was the highest since the start of the war.
The presumptive Democratic nominee and senator from Illinois is part of an official congressional delegation that includes Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). The lawmakers made a brief visit to Jalalabad airfield in eastern Afghanistan, greeting American troops from their respective home states.
At Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, Obama and the others met with senior military officials and got a briefing from the commander of American forces in eastern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser. The decision to have the delegation meet with Schloesser probably reflected growing U.S. concern over infiltration of fighters from tribal lands on the Pakistani side of the frontier, which borders Afghanistan's eastern provinces.
Although Afghanistan's south is the traditional heartland of the insurgency, the eastern front, where U.S. forces are concentrated, has heated up dramatically in recent weeks. American troops suffered their worst single-incident loss in three years last Sunday, when about 200 insurgents staged a well-organized assault on a remote base near the Pakistani border manned by U.S. and Afghan troops; nine Americans were killed and 15 wounded.
On Saturday, a NATO soldier was killed in an explosion in southern Afghanistan, in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province. The soldier's nationality was not released, but nearly all Western troops in that area are Canadian.
On the eve of his trip, Obama told reporters he wanted to make a firsthand evaluation of the Afghan and Iraqi war zones.
"Well, I'm looking forward to seeing what the situation on the ground is," he said Thursday. "I want to, obviously, talk to the commanders and get a sense -- both in Afghanistan and in Baghdad -- of, you know, what . . . their biggest concerns are. And I want to thank our troops for the heroic work that they've been doing."
In the Afghan capital, where constant power disruptions limit people's access to radio and television news reports, many residents were not aware of Obama's arrival. He is to meet with President Hamid Karzai today.
Obama caused a stir this month with remarks about the struggles of the Karzai government.
"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," Obama told CNN.
Yet there is considerable enthusiasm here at the prospect of a change in the American administration. Many Afghans, while grateful for the U.S.-led invasion more than six years ago that drove the Taliban from power, are disappointed that the country still faces violence and poverty.
Obama "has good ideas about Afghanistan, and I hope he becomes the U.S. president," said university student Hafeez Mohammad Sultani, 23. "He is young and full of energy."
Others, however, were more skeptical.