Obama on tour

Barack Obama says Afghanistan is "the central front on our battle against terrorism" and that America troops should be withdrawn from Iraq so they can "hunt down al Qa'eda and the Taliban," but others say that more money and troops will not help. The Geneva talks on Iran's nuclear programme result in an ultimatum, while in an "unexpected statement" a close aide to President Ahmadinejad declares that Iran is "friends with the Israeli people".

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Barack Obama arrived in Afghanistan on Saturday at the beginning of a tour that includes several stops in the Middle East and then Europe. In an interview with CBS News, Mr Obama said: "We have to understand that the situation is precarious and urgent here in Afghanistan. And I believe this has to be our central focus, the central front, on our battle against terrorism. "This is where they can plan attacks. They have sanctuary here. They are gathering huge amounts of money as a consequence of the drug trade in the region. And so that global network is centred in this area. And I think one of the biggest mistakes we've made strategically after 9/11 was to fail to finish the job here, focus our attention here. We got distracted by Iraq. "And despite what the Bush Administration has argued, I don't think there's any doubt that we were distracted from our efforts not only to hunt down al Qa'eda and the Taliban, but also to rebuild this country so that people have confidence that we were to here to stay over the long haul, that we were going to rebuild roads, provide electricity, improve the quality of life for people. And now we have a chance, I think, to correct some of those areas. "There's starting to be a broad consensus that it's time for us to withdraw some of our combat troops out of Iraq, deploy them here in Afghanistan. And I think we have to seize that opportunity. Now's the time for us to do it." The Washington Post reported: "On Saturday, leaders of the United National Front of Afghanistan, an agglomeration of 18 political parties led by former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, vigorously endorsed Obama's candidacy. "Rabbani, the conservative Islamist leader of the Jamiat-i-Islami party who was overthrown by the Taliban in 1996, has been critical of the corruption that has spread through the Afghan government since Karzai came to power in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban. Rabbani's party has been equally critical of the Bush administration's policy in the country. The party has given cautious support to Obama's call to put more Western troops on the ground while pushing for more humanitarian aid and development assistance. "Some Afghan politicians, however, reserved judgment. Abdul Jabbar Sabit, a former attorney general who was fired by Karzai in the past week after declaring his run for the Afghan presidency, said he is impressed by both Obama and McCain. A one-time adviser to Taliban leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Sabit said he agreed with Obama's insistence that the United States increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. "But he said he had met McCain several times and found him to be an equally compelling candidate." The New York Times noted: "Mr Obama's trip is drawing considerable attention in the United States and abroad. It is being choreographed by his strategists to coincide with a new television advertisement intended to highlight his ideas on foreign policy and portray him as ready to serve as commander in chief, an issue on which, polls suggest, he is lagging behind Mr McCain." In Newsweek, Fareed Zacharia wrote: "The rap on Barack Obama, at least in the realm of foreign policy, has been that he is a softheaded idealist who thinks that he can charm America's enemies. John McCain and his campaign, conservative columnists and right-wing bloggers all paint a picture of a liberal dreamer who wishes away the world's dangers. Even President Bush stepped into the fray earlier this year to condemn the Illinois senator's willingness to meet with tyrants as naive. Some commentators have acted as if Obama, touring the Middle East and Europe this week on his first trip abroad since effectively wrapping up the nomination, is in for a rude awakening. "These critiques, however, are off the mark. Over the course of the campaign against Hillary Clinton and now McCain, Obama has elaborated more and more the ideas that would undergird his foreign policy as president. What emerges is a world view that is far from that of a typical liberal, much closer to that of a traditional realist. It is interesting to note that, at least in terms of the historical schools of foreign policy, Obama seems to be the cool conservative and McCain the exuberant idealist." In an editorial on the worsening conditions in Afghanistan, The Observer said: "It would be hard to deny the evidence that Afghanistan is at a crossroads as Democratic nominee Barack Obama yesterday met the country's president Hamid Karzai. Despite the claims by some British officers that the Taliban is being tactically routed, no one seems to have told the Islamist insurgents. Opium production in the areas under their control - and that of other warlords - has reached new records this year. Corruption and criminality, linked often to the very heart of government, is endemic. Despite $15bn in aid that has been disbursed, Afghanistan remains mired in pervasive poverty with unemployment standing at more than 40 per cent. The country's position as one of the world's poorest has barely shifted since 2001. "Confronted with these multiple failures, the temptation, voiced yesterday by Obama, and by his Republican opponent John McCain already, is to throw more military forces at the problem in a replication of the Iraq 'surge'. A parallel attraction, encouraged by Karzai, is to insist that the international community provide ever more money in the hope that some of the billions will stick. But in a country beset by rapidly increasing pessimism over the ability of the international community finally to bring to an end Afghanistan's 30-year cycle of poverty and violence, what is needed is a large-scale rethinking of what we are doing in Afghanistan, not more violence and more largesse." Rory Stewart, a former British diplomat and Afghan expert who now runs an aid organisation in Kabul, wrote in Time magazine: "Only the Afghan government has the legitimacy, the knowledge and the power to build a nation. The West's supporting role is at best limited and uncertain. The recent elimination of the opium crop in Nangarhar, for instance, was driven by the will and charisma of a local governor and owed little to Western-funded 'capacity-building' seminars. The greatest recent improvements in local government have come about through the replacement of local governors rather than through hundred-million-dollar training programs. Since these successes are often difficult to predict, we should invest in numerous smaller opportunities rather than bet all our chips on a few large programs. "Our military strategy, meanwhile, should focus on counterterrorism - not counterinsurgency. Our presence has so far prevented al Qa'eda from establishing training camps in Afghanistan. We must continue to prevent it from doing so. But our troops should not try to hold territory or chase the Taliban around rural areas. We should also use our presence to steer Afghanistan away from civil war and provide some opportunity for the Afghans themselves to create a more humane, well-governed and prosperous country. This policy would require far fewer troops over the next 20 years, and they would probably be predominantly special forces and intelligence operatives. "This strategy is far from ideal. But it's the best option we've got. It might not allow us to build an Afghan nation. It would involve a very long-term policy of containment and management, and it may never lead to a clear victory or exit. But unlike abandoning Afghanistan entirely, as we did in 1990, it would not leave a vacuum filled by dangerous neighbours. And unlike a policy of troop increases, this strategy would be less costly, more popular with voters, more sustainable in the long term, less of a distraction from other global priorities and less likely to alienate Afghan nationalists and undermine the Afghan state."

"World powers Saturday gave Iran two weeks to agree to freeze its uranium enrichment programme at its current size as a first step toward full-scale negotiations on its nuclear programme, or face further UN sanctions and isolation," McClatchy Newspapers reported. "Representatives of the six nations told Iran they would have no more talks on their offer to withhold new UN sanctions for six weeks if Iran refrains, for a similar period, from adding new enrichment machines - called centrifuges - to the more than 3,000 it is now operating. "'I hope very much in a couple of weeks we ... hear either telephonically or physically hear a change of view,' European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said after the daylong talks with Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. 'The Iranians know very well what will continue to happen (on sanctions) if nothing happens otherwise.'" Even so, Reuters reported: "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave an upbeat assessment. 'Any negotiation that takes place is a step forward,' he told reporters, according to IRNA. "'Yesterday's negotiation is regarded as one of these forward-moving negotiations,' Ahmadinejad said." While assessing the degree to which Iran and the US may be showing signs of greater flexibility, the Israeli security analyst Yossi Melman wrote in Haaretz that President Bush: "May be willing to give the impression that he is trying to compromise, in order to prepare public opinion, at home and abroad, prior to toughening the measures against Tehran. "Bush might be aiming to signal that he does not reject diplomacy as a way of resolving the crisis, even though he does not believe in its efficacy. In the end, he will be able to argue that even the most conciliatory offer was not sufficient to assuage Iran. Perhaps this way he will be able to convince the international community to impose tougher sanctions on Iran, banning exports of fuel to it and possibly imposing a naval blockade. Such a blockade, already proposed in a petition signed by most members of Congress, will constitute a casus belli for Iran. "In other words, even though in the past two weeks the military option seems to be further removed from us, it is still on the agenda in the US and Israel." Meanwhile, AFP reported on what a conservative Iranian news website described as "an unexpected statement" from one of the figures closest to the president in the Iranian government. "Iran is 'friends with the Israeli people', a deputy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, in stark contrast to Tehran's usual verbal assaults against the Jewish state, local media reported on Sunday. "Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, vice president in charge of tourism and one of Ahmadinejad's closest confidants, also described the people of Iran's archenemy the United States as 'one of the best nations in the world'. "'Today, Iran is friends with the American and Israeli people. No nation in the world is our enemy, this is an honour,' Rahim Mashaie said, according to the Fars news agency and Etemad newspaper."