Obama pays surprise Afghan visit
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - President Obama slipped into Afghanistan for a surprise visit Sunday and made clear that the United States will likely maintain a limited role here even after its combat mission ends this year and America's longest war comes to a close.
"America's commitment to the people of Afghanistan will endure," he pledged.
Speaking to troops gathered in an airplane hangar on this sprawling military base, Obama said the war had reached a pivotal point, with Afghan forces assuming primary responsibility for their country's security. But while many of the 32,800 U.S. forces now in Afghanistan will leave in the coming months, Obama said a continued military presence could help after nearly 13 years of fighting.
"After all the sacrifices we've made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win, and we're going to make sure that Afghanistan can never again, ever, be used again to launch an attack against our country," Obama declared.
At least 2,181 members of the U.S. military have died during the Afghan war, and thousands more have been wounded.
Obama told the troops: "For many of you, this will be your last tour in Afghanistan," a comment was met with an eruption of applause. "America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end."
The president appeared optimistic that the Afghan government soon would sign a bilateral security agreement allowing the U.S. to keep some forces in the country to train Afghans and launch counterterrorism operations. He has been considering keeping up to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and said he would announce his decision shortly.
That announcement could come as early as Wednesday, when Obama delivers the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
Obama arrived at Bagram Airfield, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, under the cover of darkness for his first trip to the war zone since 2012. He spent about four hours at the base and did not go to Kabul, the capital, to meet with Hamid Karzai, the mercurial president who has had a tumultuous relationship with the White House.
Instead, officials said, Obama wanted to keep the focus during his Memorial Day weekend visit on the troops serving in the war's closing months. Karzai's office said it had declined a U.S. Embassy invitation for him to go to Bagram to see Obama. The White House said Obama was not meeting with the outgoing Afghan president in order to avoid getting involved in Afghan politics.
Instead, Obama called Karzai from Air Force One on his way back to the United States. A senior administration official traveling with the president said the leaders discussed the progress that has been made by Afghan security forces and the nation's successful first round of elections.
Obama's visit, his fourth to Afghanistan as president, came at a time of transition for a country long mired in conflict. Most of the U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan are withdrawing ahead of the year-end deadline. Elections are underway to replace Karzai, the only president Afghanistan has known since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Karzai stunned the White House by refusing to sign a bilateral security agreement needed to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year. His move delayed U.S. decision-making on a post-2014 presence, leading Obama to ask the Pentagon to work up plans for a possible full withdrawal of U.S. forces.
But with both candidates on the ballot in next month's Afghan presidential election runoff vowing to quickly sign the security agreement, Obama appeared more confident Sunday that there would be a continued U.S. troop presence after 2014.
Obama was accompanied by a few advisers. Country singer Brad Paisley joined Obama on Air Force One and entertained the troops as they waited for the president.
After his remarks, Obama visited with injured service members at a base hospital.