The South Asia Channel

Daily brief: Obama in Kabul on surprise visit

Surprise! The president’s here In his first visit to the country since being elected, U.S. President Barack Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan yesterday, landing in Kabul under the cover of darkness and meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, and top Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal (AP, Reuters, ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Surprise! The president’s here

In his first visit to the country since being elected, U.S. President Barack Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan yesterday, landing in Kabul under the cover of darkness and meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, and top Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal (AP, Reuters, AFP, CNN, ABC, NYT, WSJ, Pajhwok, LAT, McClatchy). During Obama’s six hour visit, which Karzai learned about three days in advance, Obama pressed Karzai about corruption in the Afghan government, which the Afghan leader had promised to address four months ago in his inaugural address (though U.S. officials say they have seen little change) (Wash Post, BBC). Obama also gave a rousing 20-minute speech to U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base, and invited Karzai to visit Washington on May 12 (video).

Obama’s visit to Afghanistan, which signals a refocusing "after a year mired in health-care politics," comes as a new Washington Post/ABC poll shows that 53 percent of Americans surveyed approve of how Obama is handling the war in Afghanistan, up from a low of 45 percent last November (WSJ, Wash Post). The number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan has roughly doubled during the first three months of 2010 compared with 2009, and injuries have have more than tripled, a partial function of the U.S. reaching into new areas across the country (AP).

Karen DeYoung has one of today’s must-reads, a look at the pervasive corruption in Afghanistan and a profile of Hamed Wardak, the Georgetown-educated son of Afghanistan’s defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak who has a Pentagon contract worth $360 million to deliver goods through treacherous parts of the country — but has no trucks (Wash Post). Charlie Savage has the other essential read, detailing the divide between Obama administration lawyers in the State Department and the Pentagon, and to a lesser degree in the Department of Justice and national security agencies, on the array of counterterrorism powers inherited from former President George W. Bush (NYT).

Helmandshire or Marine-istan?

Six civilians and four private security guards were killed in separate incidents in Helmand province over the weekend, and 14 troops were injured when a NATO helicopter crashed in Zabul earlier today (AFP, Pajhwok, AP, Pajhwok). The Telegraph details how a U.S. plan to replace British troops with U.S. Marines in Helmand is facing stiff resistance, bringing back memories of the 2007 British withdrawal from Basra in Iraq and concerns about British forces appearing to be "bailed out by the Americans" (Tel). Under the new plan, according to a DC source, "Helmandshire will become Marine-istan."

Carlotta Gall reports that U.S. forces have begun operations in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, telegraphed as the site of the next major anti-Taliban offensive, which she writes is expected "in coming weeks" (NYT). And across the country, tighter rules about "escalation of force" incidents have not lessened the number of Afghan civilians killed in checkpoint and convoy shootings (NYT).

The Pakistani front

Fierce fighting between Pakistani military forces and Taliban fighters continued over the weekend in Orakzai, a militant stronghold in northwest Pakistan, as security forces repulsed a militant attack on an army base in Chapri Ferozkhel with retaliatory fire and later helicopter gunships (AP, Dawn, The News, BBC). The Pakistani government says more than 100 Taliban militants and five soldiers have been killed in Orakzai in the last week.

A suspected U.S. drone strike killed four people near Mir Ali, a town east of Miram Shah in North Waziristan late Saturday night (AFP, AP, Reuters, The News). It is the first strike reported in that area since mid-February, and targeted buildings used by suspected militants. And a bomb in a Peshawar bazaar wounded five, destroyed a CD shop, and damaged two grocery stores on Saturday (AFP).

Eighty-six teenage Pakistanis are enrolled in an Army-sponsored reform school in the Swat Valley, the site of a military offensive last year, in order to try and be ‘deradicalized,’ and the boys were all brought in by military forces and some trained by militants as slaves or thieves (Wash Post). Though the 86 are a "drop in [the] ocean" of a "rising Islamist insurgency" in Pakistan, some patterns have been observed: few of the boys attended madrassas; most are middle children; and few have much formal education.

Courts in Lahore and Chicago

A Pakistani court ruled a few hours ago that some restrictions will remain on the movements of the septuagenarian nuclear scientist who allegedly leaked atomic secrets to Iran, North Korea, and Libya, Dr. A. Q. Khan (AP, Dawn, Geo, Reuters). The Lahore court said Khan is still not allowed to discuss nuclear technology and must still inform authorities if he wants to travel, though the judge decreased the notification time.

A Pakistani cab driver was arrested in Chicago on Friday on suspicion of attempting to send funds to an al-Qaeda linked militant, Ilyas Kashmiri, who is currently accused in a separate case of plotting to attack a Danish newspaper (Reuters, AP, Wash Post). Court papers describe a March 11 phone call in which Raja Lahrasib Khan appeared to discuss attacking an unnamed stadium in the U.S. with bombs that go "boom, boom, boom, boom."

The carpet beat

A USAID-funded international carpet market has recently been opened in Jalalabad, a project worth $129,000 (Pajhwok). A larger market is planned for completion within a year, and will produce around 40,000 square meters of carpet per month.

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