Obama's Afghan Visit: Progress and Prodding

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Ahmad Masood / REUTERS

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, March 28, 2010

President Barack Obama arrived in Afghanistan under the cover of darkness Sunday on an unannounced mission to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. troops.

The visit to the war zone, Obama's first as president, was undertaken in secret for security reasons. "It is something he has wanted to do for a while," said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, during an in-flight briefing for reporters.

Obama arrived at Bagram Air Base after dusk and was greeted by commanding General Stanley McChrystal and the State Department official for Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry. The president immediately boarded a convoy of armed helicopters for the ride 50 miles south to the Presidential Palace in Kabul.

Obama's suit got a coat of dust as the president emerged from a helicopter at the palace to walk an honorary red carpet with Karzai. The two men met together for between 25 and 30 minutes. They had last spoken by secure video conference on March 15. A senior administration official said that the two men continued their discussion.

"The president indicated that he felt President Karzai had made good progress on the issues discussed on the video conference," the senior official said. "As a result, [Obama] asked President Karzai to come visit in May."

Karzai is expected to meet with Obama in Washington D.C. on May 12. An official traveling with the President tried to downplay any specific results of the meeting, saying that the issues are complex and will require persistence. "This is never going to be solved with one silver bullet," the official said.

In a brief address before reporters, Karzai welcomed Obama and praised American efforts in his country. "I hope that this partnership will continue into the future," he said.

Last November Eikenberry, who leads U.S. diplomatic efforts in the country, penned a cable complaining that Karzai was "not an adequate strategic partner" in part because of the corruption in his government and his decision to "shun responsibility" for Afghan governance and development. Asked if this was the current view of the Obama Administration in a briefing during the flight to Afghanistan, National Security Advisor James Jones did not answer directly, though he said that there had been improvements in the relationship. "He is our partner," Jones said. "We are seeing encouraging signs that things are moving in a positive direction."

During his first year in office, Obama authorized the addition of 51,000 troops to Afghanistan. There are currently more than 70,000 U.S. troops in the country, according to Lt Gen. Douglas Lute, the top Afghanistan official on the National Security Council, a number that is expected to peak around 98,000 before withdrawals begin in July of 2011. In two major reviews in 2009, Obama also redefined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, moving away from the stated Bush Administration goal of building an independent Afghan government to the goals of denying Al Qaeda a save haven and preventing a Taliban overthrow of the fledgling Karzai government.

By most measures, the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated in 2009. According to NATO statistics, there were over over 7,000 attacks using improvised explosive devices in 2009, up from 4,170 in 2008 and 2,700 in 2007. About 310 U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in 2009, more than twice as many as 2008, a fact partly attributable to more aggressive U.S. offensive operations.

During his stay in Kabul, Obama noted how the city's skyline appeared to have changed since he had last visited, as a presidential candidate in 2008. "You could see all the changes in terms of increased electricity production," Obama said.

The helicopter convoy that sped Obama between Kabul and Bagram Air Base was well armed and on alert. Reporters in one helicopter were instructed not make any camera flashes during flights. Pen lights were distributed to help travelers navigate the darkness.

Upon returning to Bagram, Obama changed from his suit into a brown bomber jacket before addressing a makeshift hangar full of troops. "There is no visit I consider more important than this visit here," the President said. "Everyone back home is proud of you."

After the rally, Obama met with McChrystal and Eikenberry. This was followed by a visit to the base hospital where the President met with the wounded. That was followed by a tour of a mess hall, where the President worked the room as Michigan State played Tennessee on the television screens hung around the walls. (Before Obama entered, White House aides had the channel changed on the television, from a motorcross event to the NCAA tournament.) "Let your families back home know that we know they are going through some sacrifices too," Obama said as he left the mess hall.

A few minutes later, he reboarded Air Force One, having spent just over six hours on the ground.

It was a whirlwind trip that had begun in utmost secrecy: White House guidance released Friday placed Obama at Camp David until late Sunday afternoon. But on Saturday evening, the President traveled by helicopter to a closed hangar at Andrews Air Force Base, where Air Force One had been loaded with enough fuel for the 12 hour, 46 min. flight. The president's plane took off at 10:09 p.m., with the blinds drawn so as not to alert nearby residents.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs informed certain news organizations that were scheduled for presidential travel on Thursday, warning that if the news leaked out before the president arrived in Kabul, the trip would be canceled. Following the regular pool rotation, Gibbs invited 14 journalists to travel on Air Force One, including a television crew from ABC News and reporters from the Wall Street Journal, TIME, National Public Radio and the three major wire services, Bloomberg, Reuters and the Associated Press.

To insure the secrecy of the trip, journalists were instructed to arrive at Andrews by approaching a closed side gate, where they were greeted by a Secret Service agent, casually dressed. Reporters forfeited their laptops and cell phones before boarding the plane. The equipment was returned about two hours into the flight.

Also traveling with the president were Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, senior advisor David Axelrod, and national security aides Tom Donilon, Ben Rhodes and Denis McDonough.