Days before signing off on a classified review of progress in the war, President Obama flew Friday to Afghanistan under heavy guard for a lightning visit. Bad weather shut down a planned meeting with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, but Obama met with U.S. troops at the huge U.S. Bagram air base north of the Afghan capital.
Amid what one senior U.S. officer called "a deteriorating stalemate'' in the fighting against an expanding Taliban insurgency, Obama wanted "to spend some time with the troops . . . basically to wish them a happy holidays,'' said White House spokesman Ben Rhodes. "It's a particularly tough time of year,'' he added.
Obama acknowledged as much in his speech to almost 4,000 service members, many of them from the 101st Airborne Division (click play below for video).
"I don't need to tell you this is a tough fight,'' said Obama, who had just come from visiting with members of a 101st Airborne unit that lost six soldiers killed Monday by an insurgent posing as an Afghan policeman. "It's a tough business -- progress comes slow. There are going to be difficult days ahead,'' Obama said. But he quickly turned upbeat. "Thanks to your service we are making important progress,'' Obama said. "You are achieving your objectives . . . we said we were going to break the Taliban's momentum, and that's what you are doing, going on the offensive, tired of playing defense.''
As a result, he told the troops, "there are fewer areas under Taliban control, and more Afgfhans have a chance to build a more hopeful future.'' Because of that progress, he said, "we look forward to a new phase next year, a transition to Afghan responsibility...but we will never,'' he said to cheers, "let this country serve as a safe haven for terrorists who would attack the United States of American again. That will never happen. That's why your mission matters so much, that's why you must succeed, because this effort is about the safety of our communities back home ...''
The president was expected to be on the ground for about three hours, spending much of that time speaking in a secure video-conference with Karzai. Gen. David Petraeus, the war's top military commander, was also expected to participate, along with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and Gen. Douglas Lute, a senior White House adviser.
The presidential trip was cut short by Afghanistan's notoriously bad weather. With a ceiling of less than 1,000 feet in the mountainous terrain, high winds and less than two miles visibility, a planned helicopter mission taking the president on the 30-minute hop from Bagram to the capital was canceled.
Obama's long-planned secret visit to Afghanistan comes at a pivotal time, when U.S. relations with Karzai are strained because of the Afghan leader's inability or unwillingness to rein in corruption and to direct an aggressive effort to build up government services beyond the capital.
Classified U.S. diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks reveal growing American disillusionment with the erratic Karzai.
The cables also show that neither Karzai nor U.S. officials have much faith in negotiations with the Taliban, a conclusion that seems to promise more fighting. Petraeus has said the Taliban will come to negotiations only when they feel more pressure on the battlefield.
But a recent Pentagon assessment paints a dismal picture of the war, including the inability so far of U.S. forces to cut off the Taliban's logistics and command capacity. The Pentagon report described the insurgency, nine years into the war, as expanding in both capability and in geographical reach.
That is expected to form the grim core of the White House review, coming a year after Obama outlined a new strategy for Afghanistan and ordered 30,000 additional troops deployed there. At present there are some 97,000 American military personnel and 49,000 NATO and allied troops serving in Afghanistan.
White House officials said White House review is an opportunity to measure the effects of the new strategy and the troop reinforcements. Portions of the classified review will be released in mid-December. White House officials said they do not anticipate a presidential speech but rather a "lower-key rollout and a statement with some briefings."
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