Facing criticism for neglecting veterans, President Obama secretly slipped into Afghanistan under the cover of darkness Sunday to visit U.S. troops serving in America's longest war.
Wearing a leather bomber jacket, Mr. Obama addressed cheering troops at Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, with a giant American flag as a backdrop.
"I was in the neighborhood and I thought I'd stop by," the president said. "I'm here on a single mission, and that's to thank you for your extraordinary service."
The show of support for men and women in uniform came as Mr. Obama is trying to fend off criticism over the treatment of veterans seeking care at VA hospitals. The president's 22-minute address to the troops was filled with references to his administration's support for veterans back home.
"We're going to stay strong by taking care of your families back home," Mr. Obama said. "Helping our wounded warriors and veterans heal isn't just a promise, it's a sacred obligation. Our obligations to you and your families have only just begun."
The president also spoke of first lady Michelle Obama's efforts in the program Joining Forces, which encourages private firms to employ veterans returning from war. "Hire a vet, hire a vet, hire a vet," the president said to more cheers.
Mr. Obama also said his administration would likely announce soon how many troops the U.S. will keep in the country, as it winds down its presence after nearly 13 years of war. His entire visit there lasted just under four hours.
Mr. Obama left Washington on Air Force One around 11 p.m. Saturday, with a media blackout following Secret Service protocol, and landed at Bagram after an overnight flight. The president spent just a few hours on the base and did not travel to Kabul, the capital, to meet with President Hamid Karzai, who has had a tumultuous relationship with the White House.
Mr. Obama received a briefing from his military commanders and visited wounded service members at a hospital on the base.
The centerpiece of the trip was the rally with some of the 32,000 Americans who are currently serving in Afghanistan — a war the president has committed to winding down by the end of this year. The event included a performance by country music star Brad Paisley, who traveled with the president.
In another attempt to deflect criticism of his military leadership, the president also is expected to defend his foreign policy Wednesday when he delivers the commencement address at the West Point military academy. Aides say he will launch a sweeping defense of his strategy of not allowing U.S. forces to get "overextended," and he will say that America is more reliant on multilateral diplomacy instead of military interventions.
Mr. Obama is seeking to keep a small number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to train Afghan security forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. But that plan is contingent on Mr. Karzai's successor signing a bilateral security agreement that Mr. Karzai has refused to authorize.
The president said he's still hopeful that a security agreement will be signed, allowing a small contingent of U.S. forces to assist Afghans beyond this year. He said although the Taliban is still a threat in Afghanistan, the country has made progress, thanks to U.S. troops.
By the end of this year, Mr. Obama told the troops, "America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end."
"That progress is because of you, and the more than half a million Americans who have served in Afghanistan," he said. "You're completing the mission. Even with all the challenges, more Afghans have hope for their future. That's because of you."
It was Mr. Obama's fourth trip as president to Afghanistan, but his first since being re-elected in 2012. Also along for the trip were National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice; senior national security director for Afghanistan Jeff Eggers; senior presidential adviser Dan Pfeiffer; and counselor to the president John Podesta, who has a son serving in Afghanistan.
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president that the administration saw the trip as "an opportunity for the president to thank American troops and civilians for their service." He noted that Mr. Obama had been looking for an opportunity to get to the country for some time.
Mr. Rhodes also said the scandal over the VA did not "factor into the planning for the trip."
The Afghan political calendar also explained the decision not to meet Mr. Karzai, according to Mr. Rhodes. Two candidates for president are campaigning in a run-off election.
At least 2,181 members of the U.S. military have died during the nearly 13-year Afghan war and thousands more have been wounded. There are still about 32,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a high of 100,000 in mid-2010, when Mr. Obama sent in additional soldiers to quell escalating violence.
As is typical of recent presidential trips to war zones, the White House did not announce Mr. Obama's visit in advance. Media traveling with Mr. Obama for the 13-hour flight had to agree to keep the trip secret until the president arrived at the air base.
"We just don't want to take any risks with the president's security," Mr. Rhodes said.
Mr. Obama has staked much of his foreign policy philosophy on ending the two wars he inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush.
The final American troops withdrew from Iraq in the closing days of 2011 after the U.S. and Iraq failed to reach a security agreement to keep a small American residual force in the country. In the years that have followed the American withdrawal, Iraq has been battered by resurgent waves of violence.
U.S. officials say they're trying to avoid a similar scenario in Afghanistan. While combat forces are due to depart at the end of this year, Obama administration officials have pressed to keep some troops in Afghanistan after 2014 to continue training the Afghan security forces and undertake counterterrorism missions.
Pentagon officials have pushed for as many as 10,000 troops; others in the administration favor as few as 5,000 troops. Mr. Obama has insisted he will not keep any Americans in Afghanistan without a signed security agreement that would grant those forces immunity from Afghan law.
U.S. officials had hoped plans for a post-2014 force would be well underway by this point. But Mr. Karzai stunned U.S. officials this year by saying he would not sign the security agreement even though he helped negotiate the terms. The move signaled that Mr. Karzai does not want his legacy to include a commitment to allow the deployment of international troops in his country any longer.
Mr. Karzai's decision compounded his already tense relationship with officials in Washington who have grown increasingly frustrated by his anti-American rhetoric and decision to release prisoners over the objections of U.S. officials. Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai have spoken just once in the past year.
By skipping a meeting with Mr. Karzai while in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama is signaling that the White House already has discounted the Afghan president as a worthwhile partner.
Before leaving Afghanistan, Mr. Obama did speak to Mr. Karzai by phone for more than 15 minutes. A White House official said Mr. Obama praised Mr. Karzai "for the progress being made by Afghan security forces."
Karzai, the only president Afghans have known since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban's Islamic rule, was constitutionally barred from running for a third term this year. An election to choose his successor was held this month, with the top two candidates advancing to a June runoff.
Both of those candidates, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, have promised a fresh start with the West and pledged to move ahead with the security pact with the U.S.
• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.
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