Biden Briefs Obama on Afghanistan, Is Optimistic

Casualties will increase with troop surge, but VP-elect sensed goodwill

A confidant of the man Barack Obama defeated in November said Wednesday that the president-elect has earned enormous global good will and "a moment in time" to re-engage other nations with the United States.

The assessment by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was noteworthy because he is a conservative Republican and one of Sen. John McCain's closest friends. Graham campaigned vigorously against Obama in last year's presidential race.

Noting himself that he had been "one of the chief opponents" of Obama, Graham pronounced himself now "very pleased" with the president-elect's attitude and policies toward the countries they visited.

Graham appeared Wednesday with Vice President-elect Joe Biden at Obama's transition headquarters. Biden and Graham were there to brief Obama on what they learned during a just-completed five-day, bipartisan fact-finding mission to Kuwait, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I cannot tell you how much enthusiasm we saw in Pakistan for this new president," Graham said, sitting in a chair to Obama's right. "There is a moment in time here for this country to re-engage the international community, to make sure that we have international support to stabilize Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq."

He added: "This president's popularity and the respect that he has earned throughout the world gives America a chance to re-engage not only in the region, but in a way that will in the long term make this job easier, take some pressure off our troops. And that's a compliment to you and the way you have campaigned."

Biden and Graham gave Obama an initial report on their trip and will later present the president-elect with a more detailed accounting, including recommendations. Reporters weren't allowed into the meeting, but the trio talked to reporters brought in after it was over.

Biden said "things are going to get tougher in Afghanistan" before they improve. Graham agreed, predicting that "casualties are likely to increase" in Afghanistan as the number of U.S. troops there goes up this year.

The U.S. is rushing as many as 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, seeking to the turn the tide in fighting that has seen al-Qaida-linked militants and the Taliban make a comeback after initial defeats in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

However, on the day that a new audiotape believed to be from Osama bin Laden was posted on Islamic militant Web sites, Biden struck an optimistic note, saying that the assets and cooperation he saw in the region led him to feel more positive about the anti-terror fights.

"I come away from the trip more encouraged rather than less encouraged," he said.

Biden, still chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until his expected resignation from his Senate seat before becoming vice president on Tuesday, took the trip as a member of Congress, not as incoming vice president.

But it was a distinction without a difference.

The administration-in-waiting wanted to show its interest in the crucial region as soon as possible. And an official White House trip would have been much more cumbersome and have taken much longer to organize than what's known in Capitol Hill-speak as a CODEL, or congressional delegation trip. Graham is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Though the pair stressed they went to each country "to listen, not to convey policy," they also expressed concern to some leaders, when necessary, "about some of their actions — or lack of actions."

For instance, they both emphasized the crucial role Pakistan will play in whether the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan can be successful. Militants cross the porous, dangerous border from the lawless frontier on the Pakistani side into Afghanistan, where they attack U.S. troops.

Obama said little to reporters, other than thanking the two senators and announcing that he plans to enlist Graham as "one of our counselors" on foreign policy.

"The recommendations that you're going to be delivering to me are going to be of enormous help in making sure that we do what is my No. 1 task as president-elect and as president, and that is to keep the American people safe and to make sure that when we deploy our military, that we do so with a clear sense of mission and with strong support from the American people," Obama said.

He pledged during his campaign to remove all combat troops from Iraq by May 2010 and to refocus on Afghanistan. However, he has said that he would consult with military commanders first and adjust his timeline if it would risk the safety of U.S. troops remaining behind to train Iraqis and fight al-Qaida or if it would cause backsliding in Iraqi stability.

Graham, in another shift from his statements during last year's presidential campaign, also praised Obama's approach on bringing troops home from Iraq.

"We have an opportunity, now, in a responsible manner, to bring our troops home," he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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