President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Friday, personally delivering holiday greetings to U.S. troops stationed there and promising continued full support in the war against Taliban and other extremists.
The president, who is expected to remain on the ground for roughly three hours, addressed nearly 3,900 troops at Bagram Airfield. Most of the troops were with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, though components of all the service branches were represented.
“I wanted to make sure that I could spend a little time this holiday with the finest fighting force the world has ever known,” he told the enthusiastic audience. “On behalf of more than 300 million Americans, we are here to say thank you.”
The president praised the troops for what he characterized as recent military gains in the nine-year conflict.
Our coalition “is strong and is growing,” he said. “You’re going on the offense. (We’re) tired of playing defense.”
Obama visited wounded troops at a hospital on the base, according to reporters traveling with the president. The president met with a total of eight patients — five soldiers and three civilian contractors.
He awarded five Purple Hearts and met with the surviving members of a platoon that lost six troops earlier in the week.
Obama was originally scheduled to travel to Kabul to meet with President Hamid Karzai and greet U.S. embassy staffers, but was staying at Bagram because of poor weather conditions. He did, however, speak to Karzai via secure videoconference for 15 minutes.
The president later huddled with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
It is unclear if revelations about U.S. concerns with the Karzai government recently publicized by the group WikiLeaks were discussed. Among other things, two of the cables released by WikiLeaks paint an unflattering portrait of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of President Karzai who has faced drug dealing accusations.
Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, downplayed concerns of possible new rifts caused by the WikiLeaks disclosures. Rhodes noted that the White House has “weathered those kinds of revelations before as it relates to President Karzai and the Afghan government.”
“We’re all aware there are serious challenges in Afghanistan,” he said.
Prior to the latest WikiLeaks disclosures, Petraeus met with Karzai in an effort to ease tensions after Karzai criticized foreign forces' operations in Afghanistan. Karzai told the Washington Post he would like to scale back the U.S. military presence in his nation, and criticized the military presence as "intrusive" while calling special operations raids a problem. Petraeus, in response, told Karzai aides that the president's view could make his relationship with the United States "untenable."
Rhodes said Friday the administration's major focus in Afghanistan remains "breaking the Taliban's momentum" while building up Kabul's security capability and promoting a transfer of authority and responsibility to Afghan military forces.
A major U.S. military review of the war in Afghanistan is due this month, a year after Obama ordered additional U.S. troops to the country as part of a strategy that could bring some forces home as soon as July 2011. Officials have said the goal is to end combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014.
Friday's trip is Obama's second visit to Afghanistan since he became commander in chief. Obama also traveled to Afghanistan in 2008 as a presidential candidate.
During that visit -- which was part of a broader trip to the Middle East -- Obama traveled to the eastern part of the country to meet with both Karzai and U.S. forces.