Obama makes secret flight to see troops in Afghanistan
But bad weather stops him from visiting Karzai
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — In a rousing holiday-season visit, President Obama told cheering US troops yesterday in Afghanistan that they are succeeding in their vital mission fighting terrorism. But after he flew in secrecy for 14 hours, foul weather kept him from a meeting in Kabul to address frayed relations with President Hamid Karzai.
Obama’s surprise visit to the war zone, his second as president, came 10 days before he will address the nation about a new review of US strategy to defeat the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan government so that US troops can begin leaving next year.
The trip also came at a particularly awkward moment in already strained US relations with Afghanistan because of embarrassing leaked diplomatic cables alleging widespread fraud and underscoring deep concerns about Karzai.
There was no mention of that as the president spoke to more than 3,500 service members packed into a huge hangar.
Obama stayed on the US military base, headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division, for his entire time in Afghanistan, just under four hours. He huddled with General David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, and US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. And he visited wounded soldiers at a base hospital, presenting five Purple Hearts to wounded service members.
“Because of the progress we’re making, we look forward to a new phase next year,’’ Obama told the troops.
He said the United States was continuing “to forge a partnership with the Afghan people for the long term.’’ And he said, “we will never let this country serve as a safe haven for terrorists who would attack the United States of America again. That will never happen.’’
There are about 150,000 coalition forces in Afghanistan, roughly 100,000 of them American. The United States and its NATO partners agreed last month in Lisbon to begin turning over control to Afghan authorities in 2011, with a goal of completing that transition by 2015.
Waheed Omar, a Karzai spokesman, said the Afghan leader was not upset that the palace visit was scuttled. He noted that the two leaders had met in Lisbon and discussed the situation in Afghanistan in detail.
Obama, who has tripled US troop strength in Afghanistan, has come under increasing pressure to demonstrate progress in the battle that has now gone on more than nine years. In his remarks to the troops, Obama cited “important progress.’’
“We said we were going to break the Taliban’s momentum. And that’s what you’re doing. You’re going on the offense, tired of playing defense, targeting their leaders, pushing them out of their strongholds. Today, we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and more Afghans have a chance to build a more hopeful future.’’
He thanked the troops for their sacrifice “on behalf of more than 300 million Americans.’’
“You give me hope. You give me inspiration. Your resolve shows that Americans will never succumb to fear,’’ he said to cheers and shouts.