President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan and promised them unstinting support for their mission as he prepares to review his strategy for the war, which is now in its 10th year.
Obama, who announced a revised Afghan War plan one year ago this week, secretly flew through the night from Washington and arrived in darkness at Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul. The president met with U.S. military and civilian officials and visited wounded troops at a base hospital.
“We will never let this country serve as a safe haven for terrorists who would attack the United States of America again,” Obama told 3,850 military personnel from the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marine Corps inside a hangar at the base. “We will do whatever it takes to make sure that you have the strategy and the resources and the equipment and the leadership to get this done.”
A planned side trip to see Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul was scrapped because high winds and low visibility in the mountain passes between Bagram and the capital made the helicopter trip too risky, White House officials said. The two spoke for about 15 minutes by telephone instead.
The U.S. president plans to announce during the week of Dec. 13 the outcome of an administration review of the Afghan war strategy he outlined a year ago. Under the current plan, U.S. forces would begin handing over some territory to Afghan control in 2011. The goal, as outlined by the U.S. military and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is for Afghan forces to fully take over by 2014.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with the president that the trip wasn’t tied to the strategy review, which isn’t intended to lead to any overhaul of policy.
“This is a process that is diagnostic in nature,” Rhodes said of the review. It “will assess that strategy and review the need for any adjustments.”
This was Obama’s second visit to Afghanistan since taking office. He was last in the country in March. He was greeted upon arrival by Army General David Petraeus, the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. He also stopped by a base hospital and awarded five Purple Heart medals.
Rhodes said the administration isn’t concerned that the meeting with Karzai was canceled, since the two leaders met Nov. 20 at the NATO summit in Lisbon and there was no “major piece of business” to finish. Many of the agreements that the U.S. was seeking on transition and long-term partnerships were dealt with during the NATO meeting, he said.
Many Afghans will conclude that meeting with Karzai wasn’t really part of the president’s agenda, said Ahmad Saeedi, a Kabul-based independent political analyst and former Afghan diplomat.
“We all see that the weather conditions are pretty good” in Kabul, Saeedi said in a telephone interview. “He came to make a speech in front of his soldiers. That is the priority.”
The trip comes amid tensions with Karzai and conflicting reports about the progress of the U.S.-led campaign to reverse Taliban gains in Afghanistan.
A Pentagon report released in November characterized the results of the battle against the Taliban as “uneven.” It said the Taliban has been able to adapt and regroup as the U.S. and its partners pumped in additional troops over the last year.
The report cited “modest gains in security, governance and development” in high-priority areas and said Karzai’s progress against government corruption “remains uneven and incremental.”
Karzai has been critical of U.S. and allied military tactics that he said threaten to turn civilians against the government, such as night raids conducted by special operations forces.
Administration officials have said that such raids are key components of larger military operations, and Obama has said military leaders will “balance the issues of being sensitive to our footprint with the need to get certain objectives done.”
In addition, confidential diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to the New York Times and other publications underscored the U.S. challenge in combating corruption in Afghanistan.
American officials point to the top reaches of Afghanistan’s government, the Times reported, citing an August 2009 report from Kabul that said Karzai and his attorney general “allowed dangerous individuals to go free or re-enter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court.”
“The challenges on either the security side or the government side are not new, and they’re certainly not unknown,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, Obama’s coordinator for Afghanistan policy, said the topics of corruption within the Afghan government and the cables disclosed by Wikileaks didn’t come up in the conversation between the two leaders.
He and Rhodes told reporters on Air Force One on the return trip to Washington that the issue of the cables had previously been dealt with between Afghan and U.S. officials.
The main purpose of the trip was to thank U.S. troops for their service, Rhodes said.
In his address to U.S. forces at Bagram, Obama said that while there are debates in the U.S. over domestic politics, the nation is united on giving them the support they need for their mission.
“I can say without hesitation that there is no division on one thing, no hesitation on one thing, and that is the uniform support of our men and women who are serving in the armed service,” he said.
Reaction to Address
Soldiers interviewed after Obama spoke said they appreciated the president’s promise of support.
“It’s incredibly powerful to see the president any time, and it’s that much more special here in Afghanistan, the fact that he made the time to come and see us,” said Army Lieutenant Colonel Eric Heist of the 101st Airborne Division.
The trip had been in the works for over a month, Rhodes said, and was shrouded in secrecy because of security concerns. The blinds on Air Force One remained shut the entire 13-hour flight due to security.
The last-minute schedule change came as a surprise to the president’s aides and press traveling aboard Air Force One.
Roughly 90 minutes before landing at Bagram, reporters had gathered around a table in a conference room with Gibbs and Rhodes to run through the trip schedule. Midway through, Alyssa Mastromonaco, Obama’s director of scheduling and advance, interrupted the meeting to warn that bad weather might force a change of plans.
Shortly thereafter, she came back with a pad of paper with the Air Force One logo on it and a new schedule written by hand. Gibbs then read it aloud to the pool of reporters.
“Obviously it would be nice to be able to share a meal together, but at the same time they were able to meet face to face less than two weeks ago,” Rhodes said. “President Karzai understood the purpose of this was really for the president to spend some time with the troops.”
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