Obama in Unannounced Afghan Visit
Doug Mills/The New York Times
President Obama greeted troops at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan with Gen. David H. Petraeus, right, on Friday.
By PETER BAKER
Published: December 3, 2010
WASHINGTON — President Obama swept into a dark and windy Afghanistan on Friday for a surprise holiday season visit with troops as the nine-year American-led war heads into a new phase intended to finally begin transferring control of the country to Afghan forces.
Text: Obama’s Remarks at Bagram Air Force Base (December 4, 2010)
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.Wrapped in a tight cocoon of secrecy and security, Mr. Obama landed at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, on a pitch-black evening and told thousands of American service members who greeted him that they had begun to turn the tide in a war that has frustrated commanders and soldiers alike for nearly a decade.
But Afghanistan confounded the president’s plans, just as it has foreign forces over the centuries. Its notoriously gusty winds whipped around him at 45 m.p.h. and dust clouds limited visibility, grounding the helicopter that was to take him to Kabul to meet with President Hamid Karzai.
A backup plan to confer via video teleconference then was scrapped due to technical problems. The two leaders talked by telephone for 15 minutes, never laying eyes on each other, even though they were just 35 miles apart.
White House officials played down the glitches, saying Mr. Obama’s main mission during his three-and-a-half-hour stay was to show support for the troops heading into another holiday season far from home. The president had met with Mr. Karzai just two weeks ago at a NATO meeting in Lisbon, where they set forth a plan to gradually start turning over the lead role in the war to Afghan forces next year, with the aim of ending the foreign combat mission by 2014.
“Thanks to your service, we are making important progress,” Mr. Obama, wearing a bomber jacket and dark slacks, told more than 3,800 troops at Bagram. “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,” he continued, “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 added, “Because of the service of the men and women of the United States military, because of the progress you’re making, we look forward to a new phase next year, the beginning of a transition to Afghan responsibility.”
The president’s remarks offered a more positive assessment of the situation on the ground than he has in some time, influenced perhaps by the optimism expressed in recent weeks by his commanding general, Gen. David H. Petraeus. American military forces have tripled, to 100,000, on Mr. Obama’s watch, and he has vowed to begin reducing the number of troops next July.
But others in Washington and Kabul have been more skeptical of the claims of progress, noting the unabated and pervasive corruption of Mr. Karzai’s government, the resilience of the insurgency despite escalated attacks and the debacle of recent peace talks that turned out to be held not with a senior Taliban leader but an impostor.
Mr. Obama, too, dwelled on the continuing cost of the war, noting the platoon he met that had lost six members, the five Purple Hearts he awarded in the base hospital and the Medal of Honor he presented recently to an American soldier at the White House.
The atmosphere appeared more subdued than in past presidential visits, as Mr. Obama noted that “many of you have stood before the solemn battle cross, display of boots, a rifle, a helmet, and said goodbye to a fallen comrade.”
Mr. Obama’s visit came at a pivotal moment in the war on both sides. In Washington, the administration is completing a review of the surge and counterinsurgency strategy that the president approved a year ago, although officials played down its import. “I don’t think you’ll see any immediate adjustments,” Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the president’s top Afghan policy adviser, told reporters on Air Force One.
In Kabul, an election held on Sept. 18 has yet to result in a sitting Parliament, as Mr. Karzai has neither endorsed nor condemned its outcome. And State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made public on Friday laid bare the unvarnished and dubious view of American diplomats toward Mr. Karzai and his government. The cables questioned whether Mr. Karzai will ever be “a responsible partner” and depicted him as “erratic” and “indecisive and unprepared.”
But unlike his last trip to Afghanistan in March, when Mr. Obama pressed Mr. Karzai about corruption and the frictions were on public display, the president this time was intent on working around the divisions, and aides said the cables did not come up in the call between the presidents.
As has become customary under both Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush, the trip to Afghanistan was carried out in clandestine fashion. Mr. Obama slipped out of the White House without notice on Thursday night after presiding over a Hanukkah celebration, accompanied only by his personal aide, Reggie Love, Secret Service agents and members of his support staff.
At Andrews Air Force Base, he was joined by General Lute; his national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and other top aides. Air Force One took off in secret at 10 p.m. A small pool of journalists was brought along on condition that they not report on the trip until the president landed in Afghanistan.
Many White House officials, and most of the Afghan government, were not informed. The president’s advance schedule for Friday listed him meeting with advisers in the Oval Office and then making a public statement on the latest unemployment report, with the schedule reporting that “the location of the statement is T.B.D.,” or to be determined. Aides said Mr. Karzai’s government was informed in the last few days.
Mr. Obama’s trip was the third time he had left the United States in the month since his party absorbed major losses in midterm elections. He left Washington at a very busy moment, as he struggles with Congress over a host of issues like tax cuts, deficit spending, arms control, gays in the military and immigration.
He landed just after 8:30 p.m. Afghan time and took off from Bagram shortly after midnight. He spent time with General Petraeus and Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry in addition to visiting wounded soldiers. Aides said it was a useful visit even without a meeting with Mr. Karzai.
“Obviously it would be nice to be able to share a meal together, but at the same time they were able to be face-to-face less than two weeks ago,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with the president. “I think President Karzai understood the purpose of this was really for the president to spend time with the troops.”
Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 3, 2010
A picture caption with an earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Gen. David H. Petraeus as Petreaus.
A version of this article appeared in print on December 4, 2010, on page A4 of the New York edition.