U.S. President Barack Obama has made a surprise, four-hour visit to Afghanistan and told U.S. troops fighting in the nine-year old war that they are succeeding in their mission to defeat the Taliban.
In remarks to thousands of troops serving with the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force, Obama thanked military members for their service and said despite the difficult days that lay ahead they are making "important progress" in their mission and will ultimately succeed.
"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," Obama said. "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."
Obama made the 13-hour non-stop secret flight from Washington to Afghanistan late on December 2 and arrived at Bagram Air Base at approximately 2030 local time the next day. Many White House officials and most members of the Afghan government had no advance knowledge of the trip.
After arriving, he was scheduled to take a helicopter to Kabul to hold a working dinner with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and greet employees at the U.S. Embassy, but White House officials canceled the trip because of bad weather and high winds. That decision cut in half the amount of time Obama planned to spend in the country.
Instead, Obama held a conference call with Karzai that also included General David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Douglas Lute, Obama's senior advisor and coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
He then visited the base's military hospital, where he awarded the Purple Heart medal to five injured troops. Obama also met with members of the 102 Airborne Division, which lost six of its members on November 29 when an Afghan police officer trainee turned his weapon on them.
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But the primary reason for Obama's unannounced trip was to visit U.S. troops, more than 3,000 of whom crowded into an airplane hangar on the base to hear their commander in chief speak.
Taking the podium around 2230 local time, Obama told the troops there was "no place" he'd rather be at the holidays than with them, who he called "the finest fighting force the world has ever seen." He said despite political disagreements and recent partisan elections back home, "there is no division" among Americans in their support for the troops.
The crowd erupted in wild cheering when Obama thanked military families for their sacrifices and for enduring "the empty seat at the dinner table" around the holidays.
"We may face a tough enemy in Afghanistan and we're in a period of tough challenges back home. But we did not become the nation that we are because we do what's easy," Obama said. "As Americans we've endured, we've grown stronger, and we remain the land of the free only because we're also home of the brave. And because of you I know that once more we will prevail."
The past year has been the deadliest so far of the war for coalition troops, with 650 deaths.
The White House is in the process of reviewing its strategy in Afghanistan, which currently calls for U.S. troop withdrawals to begin in the summer of 2011. Afghan troops and police are being trained to take over responsibility for security.
At a NATO summit in Lisbon last month, leaders agreed on a framework for that handover, beginning in 2011 and ending in 2014.
Obama reminded troops that that schedule is on track.
"As we do, we continue to forge a partnership with the Afghan people for the long term." Obama continued, "And we will never let this country serve as a safe haven for terrorists who would attack the United States of America again."
Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters that the trip was planned more than a month ago, at Obama's request to visit the troops during the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Officials took the canceled face-to-face meeting with Karzai in stride, saying that Obama wasn't carrying a particular message to the Afghan leader. Rhodes noted that the two men met for an hour less than two weeks ago in Lisbon, where he said "their discussions are focused on the framework for transition and the long-term agreement."
The Kabul meeting on December 3 would have been a continuation of those talks, he said.