Barack Obama on surprise trip to Afghanistan

US President Barack Obama on Friday paid a surprise lightning visit to Afghanistan to huddle with leaders and troops as his administration takes a hard look at whether its war strategy is working.

Last Updated: Dec 03, 2010, 23:11 PM IST

Bagram Air Base: US President Barack Obama on Friday paid a surprise lightning visit to Afghanistan to huddle with leaders and troops as his administration takes a hard look at whether its war strategy is working.

Obama left the White House quietly and flew to Kabul under cover of darkness. It was the second such visit since Obama became president, with his aides announcing nothing of his trip due to security concerns.

Obama, who has tripled US troop numbers in Afghanistan, was set to spend a mere three hours in the country at Bagram Air Base, the headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division.

He was met by General David Petraeus, commander of US troops in Afghanistan, and US ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and went straight to a base hospital to meet with wounded soldiers.

Due to inclement weather including winds of more than 70 kilometers (45 miles) an hour, officials said Obama curtailed an original trip planned for up to six hours and will not take the short helicopter ride into Kabul.

Instead, Obama will speak by telephone with President Hamid Karzai, after a video conference was cancelled, officials said. At the air base, Obama will meet with "wounded warriors" and other US troops spending the holiday season in Afghanistan, an official said.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs sent a message on Twitter saying it was "windy and cold" at Bagram Air Base at about 9:00 pm local time.

Obama`s trip comes as his administration works on a review of its war strategy to be completed by the end of December, but coincides with new problems with Karzai over embarrassing leaked cables.

The website WikiLeaks this week released a series of secret US cables that renewed US questions about Karzai`s leadership.

In one cable, Eikenberry portrayed Karzai as "paranoid and weak," "unfamiliar with the basics of nation building" and "overly self-conscious" that his time of glowing reviews from the West had passed.

The Afghan presidency declined to comment those allegations. Deputy spokesman Simak Hirawi said Karzai would hold a news conference on Saturday "to answer journalists` questions."

One cable said that Ahmad Zia Massoud -- a first vice president until last year -- was caught entering the United Arab Emirates with 52 million dollars.

Another presidential aide told AFP: "This is a stupid allegation. Can you believe someone could take 52 million dollars and transfer it in a plane to another country? Can you believe it is possible?"

Some 100,000 US troops are fighting in Afghanistan as part of a ramped-up strategy to fight the Taliban.

Obama had originally planned to start withdrawing the troops in mid-2011, believing the deadline was vital to pressure Karzai to take more responsibility for security.

After the US election victory of the Republican Party, which says the deadline encourages the Taliban to wait it out, the administration has shifted emphasis to say that the troop withdrawal would take place through 2014.

White House aide Ben Rhodes told reporters on Air Force One there was "no major new piece" of news that Obama would bring into his meeting with Karzai but that he would glean information for the December review.

"It`s not about that," Rhodes said, calling the visit "more about thanking the troops."

A NATO summit last month in Lisbon pledged support for Obama`s plan, agreeing that security would be handed over to the Afghan police and military from next year.

US troops first invaded Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks and ousted the Taliban regime, which gave refuge to elusive extremist Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network.

Bureau Report