Obama Makes Surprise Visit to Afghanistan

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Jim Young / Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama inspects a guard of honor with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul on 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.

White House guidance released Friday placed Obama at Camp David until late Sunday afternoon. But on Saturday evening, the President secretly 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.

Obama expects to spend less than 6 hours on the ground, meeting first with the recently reelected Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, followed by a larger meeting with Karzai's cabinet. Later he will attend a rally with about 2,000 troops at Bagram Air Base, and he plans to visit with wounded soldiers at the base hospital. "We plan to engage president Karzai," said National Security Advisor James Jones, in a briefing during the flight, "to make him understand that in this second term there are things he has to do." Among the issues on the table: government corruption, continued narcotrafficking, the reintegration of former Taliban insurgents into Afghan society and Karzai's appointments of "key government officials."

Last November, Lt Gen. Karl 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, 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.

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 cancelled. 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 are Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, senior advisor David Axelrod, and national security aides Tom Donilon, Ben Rhodes and Denis McDonough.