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President Obama Visits Afghanistan

Aired March 28, 2010 - 12:00   ET


CANDY CROWLEY, HOST: I'm Candy Crowley. I'm Candy Crowley and here in Washington, we have some breaking news for you. President Obama is in Afghanistan. He is in Kabul for meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. This, of course, a surprise visit. Not a surprise they would want to keep it that way, given of course the dangerous situation there. The president took along a number of top aides.

As many of you may know, in fact, the White House and the administration in general has had some trepidation about whether Hamid Karzai is up to the job of being able to get his country in a position where U.S. troops can begin to be withdrawn. This, of course, a status meeting and a way for the president face-to-face with President Karzai to both give him the force of a U.S. presence, as well as give him some advice privately, of course.

So again, President Obama, who left shortly after 10:00 Eastern time last night, now in Afghanistan. He will also visit U.S. troops there, now on the ground in Kabul for meetings with officials there.

I'm Candy Crowley, again, here in Washington. We are going to continue soon with State of the Union.

It's over. Congress has gone home to start explaining and campaigning for November. That nastiness, the threats, the vandalism we have watched this past week seems to have subsided. And the victorious administration says it is important not to gloat. But as this photo released by the White House demonstrates, it is hard not to. The Republicans say the administration may be celebrating but most Americans are not. His critics keep using the word arrogance to describe President Obama's handling of health care reform. With a different president, it is was the Democrats who chafed at what they called arrogance in victory.


GEORGE W. BUSH, 43RD PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is like earning capital. You ask, do I feel free? Let me put it to you this way. I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.


CROWLEY: Listen to President Obama this week.


OBAMA: They are actually going to run on a platform of repeal in November. You have been hearing that. And my attitude is, go for it.


CROWLEY: It took John McCain and Sarah Palin one day to take up that challenge.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I am confident that I am here reflecting the view of the majority of American people by saying, right, Mr. President, we are going to go for it.


CROWLEY: Does this sound like a new tone to you? I am Candy Crowley and this is STATE OF THE UNION.

This morning, a question of civility with the president's chief adviser David Axlerod, senior senators Lamar Alexander and Barbara Mikulski.

Before we can discuss the issue of civility, we have to address the question of whether what was reported actually happened. Sarah Palin doesn't think so.


SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: Hearing the news reports lately, kind of this ginned up controversy about us, common- sense conservatives, inciting violence because we happen to oppose some of the things in the Obama administration--


CROWLEY: FOX's Sean Hannity had more than doubts.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: And this is denied by a lot of people. I am not seeing the videotape that confirms this yet. If anyone has it, send it to me, I want to see it, of racial slurs, anti- gay slurs being made at the tea party movement. Do we have any evidence that corroborates this at all?

CROWLEY: Two FOX reporters responded that they had seen no evidence. So we begin by trying to set the record straight. There is video. Watch Congressman Emanuel Cleaver as he approaches the man on the left. Cleaver confirms that this man spit on him. He confirms that this is the man whom Capitol Police detained. Cleaver chose not to press charges. From where they were positioned, CNN microphones did not pick up racial epithets.

As for anti-gay slurs, a CNN producer heard the word "faggot" yelled at Barney Frank more than once in the House Longworth Building. The producer cannot say for sure whether it was coming from one person or more.

These things happen. The question is, what to make of them? Is this a sign of political discourse gone terribly wrong or does Eric Cantor, the number two Republican in the House, have it right?

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), WHIP: It is reckless to use these incidents as media vehicles for political gain. To use such threats as political weapons is reprehensible.

CROWLEY: For the White House view, we begin with my exclusive interview with President Obama's Senior Adviser David Axelrod. We spoke yesterday afternoon.


David, thank you for joining us.

I want to show you a couple of things just to go to Congressman Cantor's point that came out as fund-raising letters last week. The first one from the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tim Kaine, who wrote: "Democratic offices have been vandalized." He closes by saying: "Please chip in $5 or more." Then we get this Mitchell Stewart, Organizing for America, an outgrowth of the Obama campaign. You know it well. Starts out in saying: "Members have had death threats. Democratic offices have been vandalized." And it ends: "Please donate $25.00 or more."

Interpret those fund-raising pleas to me as anything other than milking the situation as the Republicans have charged.

AXELROD: Well, look. I -- I think -- you know that great scene from Casablanca where the -- the police captain says, I'm shocked to find there's gambling going on here, when they're handing him his gambling money? I mean, I don't -- I think the Republican Party has been -- has been very active in exploiting sentiment around this for --


AXELROD: -- for organizing purposes. Well, I think there was a great deal of outrage about some of the things that were said and done. And there are a lot of people who support the Democratic Party who believe in what the president and the Congress has done, and were sort of taken aback by words like "Armageddon" and calls to action of the sort that we saw on the Republican side.

The -- none of these things, however, should overshadow the magnitude of the things that have happened this week. In an environment in which people are so cynical about getting things done, we accomplished a -- a landmark health insurance reform. We reformed the student loan system and took unwarranted subsidies away from banks, and gave them to kids of middle class families and..


CROWLEY: And I -- I don't think anybody argues with that. AXELROD: -- and we've signed an arms control -- we announced an arms control agreement, the first major one with the Russians in many, many years. This was a week of progress. And so we shouldn't get detoured into the intramurals here.

CROWLEY: No. And I -- I agree with you. It was a great week. And you all have a lot to tout here. But the big action this week post the passage of this bill was some really nasty, and sometimes dangerous politics. You know, bricks thrown into windows.

It was used as a fundraiser for Democrats who blamed Republicans and their rhetoric for inciting some of this. And -- and the point of this really is, is there a way to tone this down? Were not Democrats also kind of milking the situation for political purposes? This is a political town.

AXELROD: I don't think if anybody who listened to the debate on Sunday in the United States Congress would say that -- that Democrats were using rhetoric comparable to Republicans. We weren't talking about Armageddon We weren't -- we weren't--


CROWLEY: Well, Armageddon is different than a brick through the window.


AXELROD: -- talking about -- we weren't talking -- well, but the thing is that one thing leads to the next. If you use incendiary terms, and then people respond with acts, then, you know, there -- you have to look at cause and effect. I quite agree with you. I think we should tone it down. I think, you know, one of the most-- (CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: -- one of the -- one of the most moving things I saw, Candy, this week was the end of the Senate debate on reconciliation when Senator Gregg was in the leadership position for the Republicans, and had outreached to the Democrats, Senator Conrad and Senator Byrd, and -- and Senator Reid back to the Republicans.

And then there was a minute -- moment of silence for Ted Kennedy. And I thought it was a reminder to all of us that before we are Democrats and Republicans, we are Americans. And we can compete vigorously. But at the end of the day we all love this country. We all are trustees of its future. And we ought to work together.

CROWLEY: In your view, were these Democratic fund-raising letters OK -- fund-raising off the nastiness, and the bricks and the threats, and then all that, were they OK?

AXELROD: I think that they were within the parameters of -- of acceptable fund-raising. I -- I would rather there were not events around which to send out missives like that. And I know at the end of the week that Governor Kaine, the Chairman of the Democratic Party, reached out to the chairman of the Republican Party and said, let's issue a joint statement urging a change in tone. And unfortunately Mr. Steele, the Republican chairman, felt he -- he couldn't join in that.

CROWLEY: Does the -- does the president have a role in that? Could the president bring that down? I ask because he went and said to the Democrats, sometimes there are things more important than politics.

AXELROD: Yes. Yes.

CROWLEY: It's the right thing to do. And he argued--


CROWLEY: -- that's why people should vote for this bill. And the next day he went out and he said to the Republicans effectively, bring it on, come on--

AXELROD: Well, look--


CROWLEY: -- let's fight it out.


AXELROD: No. No. Understand--


CROWLEY: Is that appropriate? AXELROD: Understand what he was saying is he believes in the advance that this represents. It will bring security to people who have insurance, and it will bring insurance to people who don't at a price they can afford. It's good for this country.

And, you know, millions of small businesses this year will get tax credits for health insurance for their employees. Kids with preexisting conditions will get coverage for the first time. They won't be excluded any more. And what he was saying was, if people really want to repeal those things, then go and make the case to the American people. After all, that's what elections are for.

CROWLEY: Let me ask you in -- in just sort of the whole tone thing. As you know, the president campaigned on changing the tone in Washington. Forty-one senators, Republicans, wrote him and said, please don't do a recess appointment with Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. They think that he is a union plant, if you will. They think that he will do check card. They -- they think he is bad for this board.

And yet the first thing the president did, of course, was to go ahead and do that recess appointment. Was that necessary?

AXELROD: Well, the -- he made a series of recess appointments because, Candy, we are in a position where the Republican Party has taken a position where they're going to try and slow and block progress on all fronts whether it's legislation or appointments.

Just to make the comparison, at this point in the Bush administration there were five appointees who -- on the floor of the Senate who had not been approved. When the president -- that President Bush made 15 recess appointments.

We have 77 appointees who have -- who have not gotten a vote because they've been held up by -- by the Republican party. Some of them are in very sensitive positions in Treasury, and Department of Homeland Security. And on boards like the Labor Relations Board that -- where there -- there are a huge number of -- of vacancies. Now--


CROWLEY: Even when the -- President Bush did it, it was seen by Democrats as a very in-your-face sort of movement.

AXELROD: We have a -- look, the Senate has a responsibility to dispose of these nominations. The average wait for the people who are appointed in these recess appointments today -- they've been waiting seven months for a vote in the Senate. There's never been anything like this, Candy.

And what we have to do, if we really want civility; if we really want to have bipartisan cooperation, then let's not try and throw a wrench into the -- into the functioning -- smooth functioning of government.

You know, Senator McConnell was quoted, a couple of weeks ago in an interview, as having told the caucus, from the beginning, we're going to try and stop everything; we're going to oppose everything.

We've had -- in a number of instances, there were filibusters to hold up appointments for weeks. And then when they finally were broken, a majority of Democrats and Republicans ended up voting for the nominees. It was just an exercise in obstructionism.

That's not good for the country. It's certainly not fair play.

So I think it was -- it was necessary, unfortunately, for the president to do what he did. Other presidents have had to do it as well.


CROWLEY: That's the president's senior adviser, David Axelrod. That interview was taped late yesterday afternoon. Later that night, shortly after 10:00 Eastern time last night, Axelrod got aboard a plane, Air Force One, with President Obama, who then flew to Afghanistan, and that's our breaking news this morning. The president has landed in Kabul, Afghanistan for talks with President Hamid Karzai. He'll also visit some troops. We are following all of these details, and up next after the break, we'll give you as much as we know.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CROWLEY: Welcome back to "State of the Union." I'm Candy Crowley with some breaking news for you. As we've been telling you, President Obama has landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, his first trip to Afghanistan as president. Much, much invested there for the Obama administration and for this country. He has sent more troops to Afghanistan than President Bush did, so this is a very important strategic region for the U.S. and very important to the Obama administration in terms of its major, its first major foreign policy decision was to send more troops to Afghanistan.

I want to bring in CNN's Kate Bolduan who is with us today covering the White House to kind of go over the details. We do know about when this trip started. We thought the president was at Camp David, at least I did. You may have known differently but how did this unfold?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: How did this unfold? Well, this is the first time, as you said, that the president has gone to Afghanistan as commander-in-chief. He did take a trip to Afghanistan then as candidate and Senator Obama in 2008. Then, like it was this time, shrouded in secrecy because of security reasons. He is there now. He's meeting with President Hamid Karzai.

Some of the interesting points, not only is he going there to meet with President Karzai and also he will be meeting with troops and speaking with troops at some point during this trip, but it's also important to note some of the underlying reasons and goals for such a big trip to happen, as you know, so quickly and so secret.

Speaking to reporters that were on the pool report note, I just could read you a couple of points, Candy, because it is interesting. We're told National Security Adviser James Jones spoke with reporters and he said that the president will engage President Karzai to make sure that he understands in his second term that certain things that weren't -- that had not been paid attention to almost since day one, and he wanted to talk about that.

And among those things is a merit-based system for appointment of key government officials, battling corruption. That's something that's been a big frustration from this administration and from the U.S. is some of the widespread corruption that has been suspected in Afghanistan in terms of government officials and that's one thing we know he'll want to talk about going forward.

CROWLEY: That's our Kate Bolduan in Washington. Stick with us, Kate, because we do have Atia Abawi, our correspondent, and she is in Kabul, and I want to bring her in now. Atia, tell me what you can about what you think this mission is about, the state of the U.S. relationship with Hamid Karzai. We certainly have not felt here that there was total confidence in President Karzai's ability to bring his country together. What does it look like from your angle?

ATIA ABAWI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Candy, what's really important here is that President Obama has made it to Afghanistan but we also have to look at how long it took him to come back to Afghanistan. His campaign was surrounded -- his foreign policy campaign about moving the war on terror from Iraq back to here, back to where it started, but yet this is his first time actually coming to the country, meeting with President Karzai in his own palace. They did meet back in June at the White House.

But what's important here is it seemed as though President Obama was distancing himself from President Karzai, especially with the campaign here in Afghanistan in 2009, a presidential campaign that was marred with allegations of fraud. President Obama and his administration making it very clear that they were not happy with President Karzai's administration. They were not happy with his government that is seen as a corrupt government not just by the international community but by the Afghans here themselves.

The Afghan people over eight years now living through a war, living through promises made by the international community and by their own government and seeing the tensions actually growing between America and Afghanistan, between their president and the U.S. president. In fact, the majority of the Afghan people when President Obama was inaugurated were excited. They thought that this would bring change into Afghanistan. A year later they're still wondering if that change will come. This is a war President Obama has just added 30,000 additional troops. Some of the Afghans happy about it, some of them not so happy about it because some see it as a change coming to Afghanistan. Others see it as more civilian casualties. Candy?

CROWLEY: Atia, what can you tell us about the feel on the ground there for the prospects for success for President Karzai? Obviously the terms of success, if you are an Afghan, are totally different than what the U.S. citizenry would see as the term for success because what U.S. citizens are looking for is, of course, a good outcome for Afghanistan but also the withdrawal of U.S. troops. What is the term for success on the ground in Afghanistan, and is there a feeling among Afghans that President Karzai is up to the task?

ABAWI: Right now Afghans are very, very skeptical. They have been for the past few years. They saw a turning point in 2005 and 2006 and it was actually a turning point for the worse. Right now the Afghan people are not as hopeful as they were since the start of the war back in 2001 and 2002.

Right now when you talk to the majority of the Afghans throughout the country, you will get differing opinions. This country is very divided. It's very different from one province to the next, let alone district to district. The majority of Afghan people, what they see as a success is to actually have food on the table. Their number one concern when you talk to the majority of Afghans is actually poverty. It's feeding their families. It's not so much the war until you go to the southern regions and the eastern regions of Afghanistan where they are witnessing the fighting.

Then they talk about the security over there. Success when it comes to the majority of the Afghan people is to have some sort of comfort, some sort of peace and some sort of safety. And when you talk to them, they say that they don't see that happening any time soon and they haven't seen that in the last eight years, but they do have one small bit of hope left and they hope that that comes with the international community. They're begging the international community to help them, but after eight years, they're skill very skeptical if the international community is really here to help them.

CROWLEY: Atia Abawi who is our correspondent in Kabul, Afghanistan where the president is at this moment meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Atia, hang with us for a minute but I want to turn back to our Kate Bolduan here in Washington who today has been covering the White House. There still is a White House, even though the president is very far away. Kate, I want to talk to you a little bit about U.S. expectations for Karzai, but first I'm told you may have a little bit of the detail of what's going on.

BOLDUAN: Yeah. Right now as we're getting all of this pool information, the only way we can get this information, we have the latest that right now the two presidents, President Obama and President Karzai are meeting in the palace. They're having a one-on- one meeting first and then that meeting will be expanded to include some of their important members of each of their cabinets, so that will be very interesting to hear what goes on in those meetings afterwards.

But you'll know this, Candy, very well because we always talk about this. There's a very recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll that actually was just released Friday that shows that the American public are actually growing more optimistic about the war in Afghanistan. That for the first time opposition to the war has dropped below 50 percent and there's actually a huge 23-point jump in the polling numbers in how people feel about the U.S. in Afghanistan since November. Fifty-five percent of the American people now saying that they are -- they are approved generally. They feel well about the U.S. being in Afghanistan, so that's a very big jump in the numbers.

CROWLEY: Our Kate Bolduan in Washington. We also have Atia Abawi who is in Kabul for us. All three of us will remain here while we follow this breaking story but we want to take a quick break.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to "State of the Union." We are rolling with some breaking news here and that is that President Barack Obama has landed in Kabul, Afghanistan. Most of us thought he was at Camp David. These sorts of trips always kept secret, obviously, for security reasons, but we now can report and authorities of course have said it's safe to report that President Obama is in Kabul.

He is there where he will be meeting with a number of officials. Most importantly with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, much to talk about there. Of course the U.S. has a huge human and monetary investment in that country, something that the president really, as we like to say in the news business, owns at this point because he has sent tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan and the campaign he said continually that Afghanistan is the real place where the war on terror is taking place. So he now owning that war and now for the first time as president visiting Afghanistan to talk with officials there.

I want to bring back in both our correspondents, beginning with Kate Bolduan who is here with me in Washington. Kate, we were talking about some of these new numbers that we've been seeing in our polls, very recent polls, as a matter of fact. Interesting to me, as you cited, that the number of people who now favor the war in Afghanistan at 48 percent, opposed 49 percent.

Clearly a country that's very split, but that's a big improvement because the president when he came into office faced a huge majority of Americans who did not favor this war and the bulk of them were Democrats. The support he was getting for putting more troops into Afghanistan was from Republicans. So this is a pretty good reversal and seems to me might give the president a freer hand that he might otherwise have felt.

BOLDUAN: That's -- exactly. And that's part of the conversation that we've been having as the president announced adding 30,000 additional troops to the fight in Afghanistan as well as when he was talking when he announced the plan of beginning to withdraw troops in July of 2011. And then when we talk about the operation that went under way just last month, a lot of it is for the American public. Their focus is here on domestic issues, on their wallets, on their pocketbooks, and a lot of people say that they have really lost sight of understanding why they need to support the fight in Afghanistan.

And that was part of the issue for the administration. They really needed to get out there and try to tell the American public and help them understand why this was important to them. You can be sure that part of this trip, is the president really putting this war that he owns now, as you said, putting this back in the forefront of the conversation and showing that it is very important and it is a top priority for this administration.

CROWLEY: Kate, let me ask you to stand by. Also standing by we also have Atia Abawi, our correspondent in Kabul, but I want to bring in now Peter Bergen. He is CNN's national security correspondent, because I think, Peter, you can help us understand if people don't at this point, highly secret. The president left last night around 10:30, shortly after 10:00 Eastern Time. What are sort of the real security concerns for Kabul for bringing the president in there, and is this sort of secrecy, which we all totally assume is necessary, is it?

PETER BERGEN, CNN SR. NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST (on phone): Well, it is, Candy. You may recall that back in 2007 when Vice President Cheney was visiting Afghanistan, he visited Bagram Air Force Base which is about an hour north of Kabul and the Taliban in cooperation with al Qaeda launched a suicide attack outside the base which killed a number of people, including an American soldier. And also the American embassy in Kabul, the area around it has been a frequent target of the Taliban attacks. So security is obviously a serious consideration here, Candy.

CROWLEY: And Peter, talk to us a little bit about the security situation in the country right now. We, of course, saw the massive U.S. and Afghan offensive recently, that was seen as sort of a strong hold. But there's still real strong holds for al Qaeda and for the Taliban that the U.S. has not gone after. Has the situation improved in the year plus that President Obama has been president?

CROWLEY: Well, I think it depends where you are. Clearly, you know, in areas of Helmand, I was there with Anderson Cooper in September and many of the particular areas in Helmand have been cleared by the marines, but the Taliban has a tendency of melting away and showing up in other places.

According to an assessment that CNN reported on by Major General Flynn, the chief intelligence officer of the United States military in Afghanistan, the Taliban has had an ability to expand its operation geographically.

The briefing by this senior military intelligence officer concluded that 2010 was likely to see more violence, so, you know, the situation is not good. And of course last year more Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the war than had been the case since the fall of the Taliban. But Candy, the point I wanted to bring up is why is Obama in Afghanistan right now, and obviously we're not privy to exactly what is taking place with Hamid Karzai.

But clearly the big issue this year is a battle for Kandahar, the major sovereign city, that is the former de facto capital of the Taliban. That is really the prize for the war, the battle of Kandahar. Who controls Kandahar to a large degree is the Taliban but also Hamid Karzai's brother Wali Karzai. And so taking Kandahar is as much a political mission as it is a military mission. And surely that's one of the main areas of discussion that will be taking place between the two presidents, Candy.

CROWLEY: Peter Bergen, our CNN senior national security analyst. I want you to stand by and I want to go back to Atia Abawi, who is our correspondent in Kabul. And picking up on what Peter just said, Atia, looking at it from a strategic standpoint and from a security standpoint, what is the conversation, do you think, between President Obama and President Karzai at this point? What does President Obama need to push President Karzai to do?

ABAWI: Candy, I just caught the end of your question over there but President Obama -- we have to remember has been pushing President Karzai but not face to face. This is the first time that he's actually come into the country since he was a candidate back in 2008. Right now what he's trying to push President Karzai into doing is to fight corruption in Afghanistan. He knows that the biggest challenge right now is credibility, not just with the international community but with the Afghan people themselves.

The Afghan government, when you talk to the Afghan people, they say that Afghanistan is actually eating itself up from the inside out. They do see the war as a big problem, especially when you go to areas in the south and the east where they see the constant fighting. But the biggest problem that they see is the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces. I was just in Helmand Province where the U.S. Marines launched a large offensive, Operation Moshtarak. When I talked to the Afghan people in the city of Marjah, the first thing that they would tell you and ask you is whether the Afghan government and the Afghan forces were coming back.

I was talking to men who actually supported the Taliban, even though they wanted the international community there, because they said it was the international community who could help build in their area as they did in the '50s and '60s with USAID, building the canals and irrigation system that say we saw there.

But what they were afraid of was the Afghan national police force coming back, the Afghan security forces coming back. Because what we have to remember in that same area in the city of Marjah, the coalition forces went in there in May of 2009 said that they cleared the area from the Taliban. But guess what, the Taliban came right back and the Afghan people supported them because they saw them as less corrupt than the Afghan security forces as well as the Afghan government.

So in some areas of Afghanistan, obviously the Afghan people trusting the Taliban more than their own government because the government has been a big, big problem for the last eight to nine years.

CROWLEY: Atia, hang on a minute. I want to bring in our Barbara Starr, who has been to this region reporting so many times and who knows it so well. She's on the phone with me now. You know, we're talking, Barbara, about the offensive in Helmand and about really sort of twin problems that the U.S. has with the Afghan government at this point and one is its ability to sort of military control the country and the other is its ability to kind of win the hearts and minds of its own population which really doesn't trust the government that's kind of viewed as corrupt. So when you look at it, is this all part and parcel of the same package or is there one challenge that's bigger than the other?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Oh Candy, I think you're absolutely right. It is all irrevocably tied together at this point. General McChrystal has really come to the understanding that there will not be a -- what he calls a U.S. military victory in Afghanistan. That the way you bring security to this country is to start working with the people across every town, every village, every mountain pass across Afghanistan. Make the people believe that their lives can be better by beginning to provide economic assistance, jobs, get the farmers off of growing the poppy crop.

And really leave -- the idea is to leave the Taliban no room to maneuver in Afghanistan. Make the people turn against them. Because, look, history shows you cannot put enough combat force in to Afghanistan to win against fundamentalist ideology.

The Russians learned it, the British learned it so many years ago. So this is not about a military victory in the long run, it's about counter-insurgency which starts with winning those hearts and minds of the people.

But I also think that President Obama's trip to Afghanistan must be viewed on several different levels. There's sort of that top level, working with President Karzai, talking about corruption, but the troops on the ground, the U.S. soldiers, the U.S. Marines, these kids really slogging through this very tough combat, it's very important for them to see that the commander-in-chief, even if he is not coming to their combat outpost, that he is coming to the ground that they are fighting on.

This is -- you know, the president hadn't been there since he was a candidate. A lot of people have been talking for many months now, when would he show up? Knowing that the health care debate in Washington was keeping him here in Washington for so many months.

Still, people were watching the calendar, not totally unexpected. A lot of people thought he would go to Afghanistan. And I think the troops are really going to be very pleased to see that he was coming all that way to see them -- Candy.

CROWLEY: I want to ask Barbara, I want to ask our correspondent in Kabul, Atia Abawi, and want to ask Peter Bergen to stand by, all of you to listen as I bring in Kate Bolduan.

Kate, I know you're gathering sort of the details of how this trip was put together and why. What have you got for us?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, interesting point. National Security Adviser James Jones, on the way over -- on the plane ride over, told reporters that this is an "important year," and that was a quote. And he said, by the end of it we'll know whether the strategy that we've put in place is moving in the right direction.

And I want you to listen to some sound about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that President Obama discussed in a big speech on strategy at West Point back in December of 2009.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As commander-in- chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.


BOLDUAN: And you see right there that President Obama, Candy, really lays out to the U.S. has a lot at stake here. And I don't think there's any doubt of that at this point. That in order for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing in July, 2011, a lot needs to happen. You know, the goal -- the mission really needs to show and prove some success, ousting the Taliban, stabilizing the country, and beginning to hand over security to the Afghan government. And that is top priority as we look at the long-term goals.

CROWLEY: Kate, let me bring Peter Bergen back in. He's joining us on the phone. Our senior national security analyst.

And, Peter, when you look at the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan, what the U.S. needs, what Afghanistan needs, there was something that was -- General Jones said on this plane en route over to Afghanistan that caught my attention in the pool report. When he was asked about the relationship between the U.S. and Afghan officials, specifically Karzai, and Jones said that Karzai is a, quote, "adequate strategic partner," which doesn't sound to me like a huge pat on the back.

What are the major problems that the U.S. has with this strategic partner?

BERGEN: Well, Candy, that's a very interesting choice of words from General Jones, the national security adviser, because it's a direct kind of referral to the secret dissent that an Ambassador Eikenberry sent on November 7th in the middle of the Afghan review saying that Karzai was not an adequate strategic partner.

Now that privately held dissent eventually leaked and The New York Times actually has published the cables themselves. So, you know, when you've got the ambassador in Kabul saying -- raising real questions about Karzai is an inadequate strategic partner and now you have Jim Jones giving this kind of very lukewarm semi-endorsement, you know, it's sort of an interesting situation.

What are Karzai's problems? I mean, one is that in Kandahar, his brother, Wali Karzai, is the most important politician, is widely reported to be profiting in some manner from the drug trade. The -- Kandahar is sort of run as almost a political criminal enterprise by people associated with the president's brother. That's a huge problem.

And then, you know, Karzai has had a history of bringing in and out of the government warlords for political purposes, which is his right, but there's a fair amount of push-back against some of the people that he's associated with who had had, to put it mildly, spotty human rights records in the past.

And then, you know, as Atia said, I mean, the Afghan police are a huge problem. A lot of people in Marjah, the area in Helmand that was cleared by the Marines, are more scared of the police than they are of the Taliban because they're seen not just as corrupt, but people who can really make your life difficult.

So, you know, there's a whole raft of problems that are associated with the central government -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Peter Bergen, Barbara Starr, Kate Bolduan, Atia Abawi, we want you all to stand by. We are going to take a quick break as CNN continues to cover the president's trip to Afghanistan.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION where we are covering some breaking news. The president of the United States has gone to Afghanistan. He is in Kabul now meeting with Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai. So much important going on in terms of U.S. hopes, Afghan hopes, the lives of Afghans as well as the U.S. military over there in force, as well as lots of money being poured in internationally, and of course, international troops as well.

I want to bring in CNN's Kate Bolduan. Kate, we're finding out that in fact Hamid Karzai knew of this trip last Thursday when it was in the planning stages, so we do know that President Karzai can keep a secret because this came as a surprise to us this morning. We thought he was in -- we thought he was at Camp David.

So we were sort of looking at the overall U.S. investment in Afghanistan, what the president's hopes were, and how he really has increasingly become the president of the face of the war in Afghanistan.

BOLDUAN: Exactly. And as one -- at the same time you also hear from the administration this idea of a partnership. This is not just a U.S. effort, you know, in trying to stabilize Afghanistan. And then on the trip going over, some of President Obama's top military advisers, in talking to reporters, really said that, you know, this -- the trip -- we get the sense that the trip, the focus is on progress.

And as you can imagine, a face-to-face meeting on some key issues is -- carries much more weight than, say, just a teleconference or a phone call, as often happens between presidents, because President Obama has such a busy schedule.

But there were three key areas that they noted on the plane trip in speaking with reporters that they really wanted to push President Karzai on to see areas of progress. They want to see progress in the area of creating a merit-based system for appointments of government officials.

As we've talked about, there has been concern about widespread corruption in certain areas, especially when talking about government and people holding those positions. A second area is cutting off and really taking on the poppy producers, the narco-traffickers that help to fuel the insurgents that the troops on the ground are really fighting to combat. And as well as setting up a judicial system that can help to prosecute those narco-traffickers.

And I want to take you back one more time, Candy, to President Obama in speaking. There was a big speech on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that he made December, 2009, at West Point. Listen here.


OBAMA: Because this is an international effort, I've asked that our commitment be joined by contributions from our allies. Some have already provided additional troops and we're confident that there will be further contributions in the days and weeks ahead. Our friends have fought and bled and died alongside us in Afghanistan. And now we must come together to end this war successfully. For what's at stake is not simply a test of NATO's credibility, what's at stake is the security of our allies and the common security of the world.


BOLDUAN: You get a sense right there, Candy, of the president really laying out that this is not just the U.S. involved in this fight, this is a NATO-led group, a coalition working together in order to try to stabilize this country.

And we should note, as we should, always keep our eye on the people, the men and women who are fighting on the ground for that exact goal. And by the end of this summer, as this 30,000 additional troops are getting over there, there will be 98,000 U.S. troops that they anticipate to be over in Afghanistan by the end of the summer.

CROWLEY: Kate, I want to get some reaction to what you and I have been talking about as well as to what's going on on the ground, any details we can get, but right now we want to take a quick break, but we will be back.


CROWLEY: Welcome back. I'm Candy Crowley, and this is STATE OF THE UNION. We are rolling with some breaking news here. The president, just about an hour ago, we found out, has flown to Afghanistan. He is in Kabul. He is meeting with Afghan officials there. Much at stake for both sides. The security of a country, the safety of a country, the security of U.S. troops as well as troops from across the world that have gone to Afghanistan to try to stabilize that country.

We have many details, but we are still adding to it. And helping me do that is our Kate Bolduan, who is in Washington with me, who is picking up some details here and there -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Hey there, Candy.

Well, we're just now getting some information from the reporters who are on the ground with the president in Afghanistan, of a statement -- a joint statement that President Obama and President Karzai made to reporters.

President Karzai, of course, thanking President Obama to come over. Also, and I thought -- found very interesting, expressing gratitude to the American people for their tax-payer money for helping to rebuild institutions in our country. President Obama, though, went on to stress the partnership -- the good partnership that exists between the U.S. and Afghanistan, saying that it will continue.

But as you and I talked about just before the break, a lot of this discussion, we hear that the goal of President Obama going over is to talk about the need for more progress in certain areas. And President Obama noted that in his statement, saying that he wanted to see more progress on energy production, good governance, anti- corruption, and all he said will result in helping Afghan people be more prosperous and more secure. He then invited Hamid Karzai to Washington in May to have a discussion on long-term strategic institutions. I believe that's exactly what it said. So we're getting some more information on this pool report, but you can see that the conversation is happening and you can only -- I wish we could be behind those closed doors in those one-on-one discussions to hear exactly how hard President Obama pushed for such progress and meeting such benchmarks as we've been talking about -- Candy.

CROWLEY: He probably pushed a lot harder than he pushes in public, I would think...


CROWLEY: Kate Bolduan.

I want to bring back in Atia Abawi, who is our correspondent in Kabul. Atia, Kate has just been talking to us about some of what has been said in this joint statement. It seems like a little bit of tough love from the president. Here's where we'd like to see progress in Afghanistan, but this is a strong, strategic partnership.

When the president of the United States comes to Kabul, stands beside the president of Afghanistan, does that help raise the stature of the president of Afghanistan or does it bring him problems?

ABAWI: Well, in all honesty, Candy, it actually helps President Karzai trust the international community. In the last year we've seen a lot of tension when it comes to the Afghan government as well as the U.S. government, the administration there. President Karzai is likely very welcoming to President Obama's trip at the moment.

President Karzai standing next to President Obama for the Afghan people who will see it, for those who have television sets, for those who have radios to hear about it, for the most part it may help. It may actually help because the majority of the Afghans who knew anything about the presidential campaign in the United States back in 2008, for the majority of the Afghans, they were actually hoping that President Obama would come into office because of his focus on Afghanistan and his promises that they were making.

But what's interesting to note is that President Obama invited President Karzai to the White House in May. We have to remember May of 2010 is also when there's a planned peace jirga here in Kabul, a peace jirga meaning that President Karzai wants to get elements of the Afghan government, elements of different ethnic groups, as well as elements from the Taliban and their commanders together to find a way forward in Afghanistan -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Atia Abawi in Kabul. Thank you so much for sticking with us today as we are watching this rolling news. We will continue to do that throughout the day. A fascinating trip. Important to all sides.

I want to also thank our senior national security analyst, Peter Bergen, who has been with us; our Barbara Starr, who has been on the ground in Afghanistan so many times, and at the Defense Department, at the Pentagon all the time and knows so much. Barbara Starr, thank you. Kate Bolduan telling us today what's going on at the White House. We obviously don't always know because we thought President Obama, now in Kabul, was actually in Afghanistan.

So the fact of the matter is we will continue to watch this, but we want to thank you for watching STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Candy Crowley in Washington. For our domestic viewers, "FAREED ZAKARIA: GPS" starts right now.