BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – President Barack Obama told U.S. troops in a surprise holiday-season visit Friday that they are making important progress in Afghanistan, and he pledged the country would never again be a "safe haven for terrorists." But a war-strategy meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai was scrapped at the last minute.
"You will succeed in your mission," Obama told more than 3,500 cheering troops in a huge hangar. "We said we were going to break the Taliban's momentum. That's what you're doing. You're going on the offense, tired of playing defense."
Obama had traveled to Afghanistan to thank the troops and to deal with frayed relations with Karzai. But after he flew 14 hours for the visit, the White House said Obama couldn't make the short additional trip to meet with Karzai in Kabul because the weather was too bad for helicopter travel.
Instead, the two leaders spoke by telephone, Obama at the air base and Karzai in Kabul.
Obama's visit, his second to Afghanistan as president, came a year after he widened the ever deadlier war and ahead of the completion later this month of a review of the 9-year-plus conflict.
"I don't need to tell you this is a tough fight," Obama said. He met with the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and also visited wounded soldiers. He presented five Purple Hearts, military awards for wounded service members.
There are now about 150,000 coalition forces in Afghanistan, roughly 100,000 of them Americans. The U.S. and its NATO partners agreed last month in Lisbon, Portugal, to begin turning over control to local Afghan authorities in 2011, with a goal of completing that transition by the end of 2014.
"We look forward to a new phase next year, the beginning of transition to Afghan responsibility," Obama said.
"Thanks to your service we are making important progress," he told the troops.
"On behalf of more than 300 million Americans, we are here to say thank you ... for everything that you do."
"We will never let this country serve as a safe haven for terrorists who will attack the United States of America again. That will never happen," he said.
Obama's visit came at a particularly awkward moment in already strained U.S. relations with Afghanistan. Leaked U.S. cables show American diplomats portraying Afghanistan as rife with graft to the highest levels of government, with tens of millions of dollars flowing out of the country and a cash transfer network that facilitates bribes for corrupt Afghan officials, drug traffickers and insurgents.
A main concern in the cables appears to be Karzai himself, who emerges as a mercurial figure. In a July 7, 2009, dispatch, U.S. Ambassador Eikenberry describes "two contrasting portraits" of the Afghan president.
"The first is of a paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation building and overly self-conscious that his time in the spotlight of glowing reviews from the international community has passed," the cable says. "The other is that of an ever-shrewd politician who sees himself as a nationalist hero. ... In order to recalibrate our relationship with Karzai, we must deal with and challenge both of these personalities."
Ben Rhodes, a White House national security aide accompanying Obama, was asked about the latest release of cables.
"We've had ups and downs in terms of the public revelation of information associated with the challenges in Afghanistan," Rhodes said. "But I think precisely the fact that we've dealt with some of the very specific stories associated with the latest WikiLeaks disclosures in previous WikiLeaks disclosures, and previous books and articles, allows us to be able to weather this."
Under intense security, Obama landed in darkness after a clandestine departure from the White House on Thursday, where plans of his trip into the war zone were tightly guarded. Obama stepped off Air Force One just after 8:30 p.m. local time, clad in a leather jacket.
The White House said rough weather forced the president to abruptly drop plans to meet Karzai in Kabul, the Afghan capital. The White House determined the wind, dust and cloud cover made it unsafe for the president to fly by helicopter from the huge military complex here to the presidential palace.
Waheed Omar, a spokesman for the Afghan leader, said Karzai was "not upset" that the palace visit was scuttled. He noted that Karzai met Obama during the NATO conference in Lisbon Nov. 20 and discussed the situation in Afghanistan in detail.
In total, Obama spent about three hours on the ground in Afghanistan, about half the time he had scheduled.
Obama is expected to give a speech the week of Dec. 13 on Afghanistan upon completion of the White House review of the conflict. No big policy changes are expected.
"I wouldn't anticipate a major speech," Rhodes said aboard Friday's flight.
He said the scrapping of the personal visit with Karzai would not have consequences because of their recent visit at a NATO meeting.
In Afghanistan on Friday, reporters traveling with Obama were escorted outside the massive air field hanger to get a glimpse of the conditions that grounded Obama here. The wind was blowing strongly, kicking up dust clouds as troops streamed in to hear Obama. An American flag whipped against its pole.
Journalists who had gone to the presidential palace were told by officials that Obama was expected, and they pointed out camera angles to capture where both leaders would be standing. An American flag hung outside a doorway. U.S. armored vehicles were securing entrances to the palace. Carpets were ready to be unrolled.
At the base hospital, Obama met with platoon members from the same unit that lost six soldiers this week, the brazen killing of the soldiers by an Afghan border policeman who turned fire on his U.S. trainers.
The war in Afghanistan is the nation's longest after Vietnam, launched in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Obama said he wanted to personally thank the troops at a time when millions back home are thinking of holiday peace, not war. This has been the deadliest year to date for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. More than 450 have been killed in 2010.
The president's visit comes nearly a year to the day after he announced he was sending an additional 30,000 troops to try to gain control — and then get the United States out — of a worsening conflict.
The U.S. now has about 100,000 forces in Afghanistan, a record total. More than 1,300 U.S. forces have died here since the war began, and more of them in 2010 than in any other year as the fight against the Taliban has grown even fiercer.
Obama's plan is to start pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan in July. The goal is to shift control to Afghan authorities by the end of 2014, a deadline embraced by NATO partners, who have 40,000 of their own forces in harm's way.
Yet much depends on the hastened training of Afghan forces amid the fighting. And the progress is precarious.