US President Obama in Afghanistan

Friday, December 3, 2010

KABUL/WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama arrived Friday in Afghanistan for an unannounced visit with US troops and talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and top NATO commanders.

Obama was greeted on landing at Bagram Air Force Base by General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Afghanistan. He later addressed more than 3,000 troops assembled at Bagram, delivering greetings for the year-end holidays.

“On behalf of more than 300 million Americans, we are here to say thank you - for everything that you do,” Obama said.

Earlier, he visited troops in the base’s military hospital and delivered Purple Heart medals for five soldiers wounded in battle.

Most of Obama’s audience at Bagram were from the Army’s famous 101st Airborne Division, spending its fourth Christmas away from home in recent years, after two tours in Iraq and a 2008-09 stint in Afghanistan. He pointed out that nearly 100 members of the 101st Airborne have been killed this year.

Since taking office in January 2009, Obama has ordered a buildup in US forces to 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. Casualties have peaked this year as US-led forces increasingly confront Taliban insurgents.

“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 told the troops.

“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 spent 15 minutes speaking by telephone from Bagram with Karzai. Plans for Obama to personally visit Karzai for a working dinner at the presidential palace in Kabul were cancelled due to rough weather.

The cloud ceiling was less than 300 metres, with visibility of less than 3,000 metres and winds measured at 70 km an hours. Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said that a planned helicopter flight to Kabul was “not an option”.

Obama and Karzai hold regular videoconferences, and last met face to face for an hour on the sidelines of a NATO summit on Nov 19-20 in Lisbon. The US embassy informed Karzai of Obama’s visit a few days ago.

The US relationship with Karzai has been strained in recent years amid Western frustration with corruption and incompetence at the highest levels of the Afghan government.

On Thursday, hours before Obama’s departure for Afghanistan, US diplomatic cables newly released by the website WikiLeaks depicted the erosion of Karzai’s reputation among officials from the US and other countries.

The WikiLeaks cables repeated well-documented concerns about Karzai’s government. The US has sought to maintain a partnership with Karzai even as it questions his ability to govern the country, the documents showed.

Karl Eikenberry, US ambassador in Kabul, complained in a July 2009 cable about Karzai’s “inability to grasp the most rudimentary principles of state-building and his deep-seated insecurity as a leader … confounding our best efforts to find in Karzai a responsible partner”.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, said Friday in Kabul that Washington has “weathered those kinds of revelations before, as it relates to President Karzai and the Afghan government,” he said. “We’re all aware there are serious challenges in Afghanistan.”

Neither WikiLeaks nor the Eikenberry cable came up in the call between Obama and Karzai, the White House said. The revelations are no hindrance for the ambassador to continue doing his job, Rhodes said.

“Frankly it’s not the first cable of his that found its way into The New York Times,” Rhodes said. “He’s managed to, despite that kind of reporting, be a very good ambassador for the United States, to be a very good partner with the Afghans.”

Obama’s National Security Council is evaluating progress in the Afghan war, with a report due later this month, ahead of a scheduled start in troop reductions by mid-2011, depending on conditions on the ground. NATO is targeting a full withdrawal by 2014.

US goals in Afghanistan remain turning the tide against the Taliban, building up Afghan security capabilities and transitioning responsibilities to Afghan forces, Rhodes said.

Planning for Friday’s trip began a month ago, Rhodes said. Obama made his first presidential visit to Afghanistan in March.

After the speech, Obama spent time meeting dozens of troops in a series of small groups, shaking hands and posing for photographs.

Obama received a briefing from US special forces officers and conferred again with Petraeus and Eikenberry before boarding Air Force One, which was due to make a refueling stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on the flight back to the US.

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