WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama arrived early Saturday morning in Afghanistan, where he is calling for more U.S. troops, and was to visit Iraq, where he's pledged to withdraw U.S. combat forces.
His war-zone visit is likely to shape the final months of his campaign and, should he win, set his early course in office.
The official visit, whose timing was kept secret because of security concerns, dovetails with Obama's much-hyped campaign-funded trip next week to meet with U.S. allies in Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and England, and with the Palestinians.
"I'm looking forward to seeing what the situation on the ground is," Obama said before departing Washington on Thursday, according to a pool report released after he landed in Kabul.
The first-term Illinois senator said he wanted to talk to military commanders about their biggest concerns and thank U.S. troops. As for any discussions with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, Obama said, "I'm more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking."
Maliki, meanwhile, told a German magazine that he endorses Obama's 16-month timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces, saying that the Democrat had the timing "right."
Obama's trips are likely to beef up his foreign policy credentials. While he has been leading Republican John McCain slightly in the race overall, voters have seen McCain, a Vietnam veteran who supports the war and opposes a timetable for withdrawal, as the stronger candidate on military and national security issues.
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll saw voters split evenly over whether support a timetable for troop withdrawals from Iraq, and whether they trust Obama or McCain more on the Iraq war. But they favored McCain 49 percent to 43 percent on protecting the U.S. against terrorism, and when asked if the candidate would make a good military commander-in-chief, 72 percent said McCain would while just 48 percent said Obama would.
In a Saturday radio address, McCain, anticipating Obama's war-zone visit, tried to take advantage of public sentiment.
"In a time of war, the commander-in-chief's job doesn't get a learning curve," he said. "And if I have that privilege, I will bring to the job many years of military and political experience. It was this experience that guided me in the conviction that the surge in Iraq could turn things around, and clear a path to victory. And I believe with equal conviction that we can prevail in Afghanistan, assuring freedom to the Afghan people and greater security to the American people."
Obama, who opposes the Iraq war, has called for withdrawing combat troops over 16 months, by one to two brigades a month, and adding at least two combat brigades to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He plans next week to ask western European officials to increase their commitments in Afghanistan as well. McCain now says he also wants to send more troops to Afghanistan.
In reaction to Maliki's comments, the Obama campaign called them "an important opportunity.
"This presents an important opportunity to transition to Iraqi responsibility, while restoring our military and increasing our commitment to finish the fight in Afghanistan," said Susan Rice, Obama's senior national security adviser.
For months, McCain has pressed Obama to travel to Iraq to have a better-informed position. Obama has been just once as a senator and not since before the U.S. troop surge in 2007. Now that Obama is going, McCain has found a new line of criticism.
In his radio address, McCain said Obama had "announced his strategy for Afghanistan and Iraq before departing on a fact-finding mission that will include visits to both those countries. Apparently, he's confident enough that he won't find any facts that might change his opinion or alter his strategy. Remarkable."
Obama is travelling with Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., both veterans who oppose the Iraq war and could play a role in an Obama administration. They were joined by Mark Lippert, a foreign policy advisor on Obama's staff and a naval reservist who returned recently from a tour of duty in Iraq.
En route to Kabul, they stopped to visit U.S. troops in Kuwait, said senior strategist Robert Gibbs.