Bagram Air Field: In a rousing holiday-season visit, President Barack Obama on Friday told cheering US troops in Afghanistan they`re succeeding in their vital mission fighting terrorism. But after he flew in secrecy for 14 hours to get here, foul weather kept him from nearby Kabul and a meeting to address frayed relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. However, the two leaders spoke to each other over phone, lasting for 15 minutes.
Obama`s surprise visit to the war zone, his second as President, came 10 days before he is to address the nation about a new review of US strategy to defeat the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan government so American troops can begin leaving next year.
The trip also came at a particularly awkward moment in already strained US relations with Afghanistan because of new and embarrassing leaked cables alleging widespread fraud and underscoring deep American concerns about Karzai.
There was no mention of that as the President spoke to more than 3,500 service members packed into a huge airplane hangar. After his remarks, he spent more than 10 minutes shaking hands, going around the hangar three times as they grabbed his hand and held cameras and cell phones high to take photos.
Obama stayed on this US military base, the headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division, the entire time he was here, just under four hours. He huddled with US General David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan and US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. And he visited wounded soldiers at a base hospital, personally dispensing five Purple Hearts to wounded service members.
"Because of the progress we`re making, we look forward to a new phase next year, the beginning of the transition to Afghan responsibility," Obama told the troops. He thanked them for their efforts, noting the difficulty in being away from home during the holidays, and they repeatedly cheered him in return.
"We said we were going to break the Taliban`s momentum. And that`s what you`re doing. You`re going on the offence, tired of playing defence, targeting their leaders, pushing them out of their strongholds. Today, we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and more Afghans have a chance to build a more hopeful future," he said.
He thanked the troops for their work and sacrifice "on behalf of more than 300 million Americans”.
"You give me hope. You give me inspiration. Your resolve shows that Americans will never succumb to fear," he said to cheers and shouts.
He said the US was continuing "to forge a partnership with the Afghan people for the long term”. And he said, "We will never let this country serve as a safe haven for terrorists who would attack the United States of America again. That will never happen."
There are now about 150,000 coalition forces in Afghanistan, roughly 100,000 of them Americans. The US 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.
White House officials said gusty winds and swirling dust led them to cancel Obama`s planned helicopter visit to Kabul, about 30 miles north of here. A backup plan for a secure videoconference was also scrapped.
Karzai assured of security transfer
The US President assured his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai of smooth transition of the country`s security to Afghan forces as American troops will begin winding down next summer.
"Both Presidents reviewed for one another and then reaffirmed their commitment to the two major deliverables coming out of Lisbon -- the first is this framework for security transition that is due to begin in early 2011, and then conclude by the end of 2014," Douglas Lute, senior advisor and coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan said.
Obama and Karzai have prioritised the security transfer in Afghanistan and said both nations should build on the momentum set at Lisbon.
"We intend that all 34 provinces in Afghanistan will have passed onto the lead security responsibility to the Afghan security forces. So they (Obama and Karzai) reaffirmed their commitment to that," Lute told reporters onboard Air Force One on his way back Washington from Kabul.
"The two Presidents agreed that work on a similar bilateral partnership declaration needs to continue and conclude in the early months of 2011, and we`re on track to do that. They both reaffirmed their commitment to finishing up this bilateral arrangement as well," Lute said.
Obama and Karzai also discussed "an enduring commitment even beyond 2014," once Afghans assume the security lead.
"You`ll recall that in Lisbon the NATO Secretary General and President Karzai signed a declaration, a statement of intent to continue this longstanding, enduring commitment of NATO supporting Afghan security forces," the advisor said.
President Karzai thanked Obama and his troops for fighting a nine-year-long battle in Afghanistan against terror.
Obama wished Karzai for a good holiday season as he hoped the weather would improve for the scheduled visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to see the Afghan President, Lute said.
On leaked diplomatic cables, Lute said the latest WikiLeaks expose did not come for discussions.
(With Agencies’ inputs)