President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Friday as casualties mount since the U.S. escalated the war last year.
Under intense security, Obama landed in night's darkness after a clandestine departure from the White House on Thursday, where plans of his trip into the war zone were tightly guarded.
Obama was to personally thank U.S. troops for their service during the holidays.
The White House said rough weather forced the president to abruptly scrap his plans to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the capital of Kabul. The White House determined the wind, dust and cloud cover made it unsafe for the president to fly by helicopter from the huge military complex in Bagram Air Field to the presidential palace.
In a rapidly changing sequence of events, the White House then said they would speak by secure videoconference -- but later said that, too, was dropped. Instead, the two leaders were expected to speak by phone."
President Obama made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Friday as he sought to smooth over a troubled relationship with President Hamid Karzai and take stock of a nine-year-old American-led war that he hopes to begin winding down next summer.
Mr. Obama arrived at Bagram Air Base after a secret overnight flight. Bad weather and high winds forced the White House to drop plans for Mr. Obama to fly by helicopter into Kabul to meet with Mr. Karzai, who has complained vocally about American military tactics in recent weeks. But the two leaders were planning to talk by phone, officials said.
Mr. Obama also planned to consult with his commanding general and visit American troops who are heading into another holiday season far from home.
Administration officials told reporters during the flight that Mr. Obama was not carrying any particular message for Mr. Karzai, with whom he met several weeks ago during a summit meeting in Lisbon. They said Mr. Obama would address troops from the 101st Airborne Division — now on its fourth combat deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan — and members of other units, and would award four Purple Hearts to wounded troops, according to the pool report from journalists who flew with Mr. Obama on Air Force One.
Wrapped in a tight security cocoon, Mr. Obama was scheduled to be on the ground for only a few hours, in his second trip in nine months to a country ravaged by war. But his arrival came at critical juncture, as he and other NATO allies put in place a transition plan meant to hand over control of the battlefield to Afghan forces. The intention is to formally end foreign combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Mr. Obama’s administration is also in the midst of its own review of the counterinsurgency strategy he approved a year ago, when he ordered the latest increase in troop strength. That step brought American forces in the country to about 100,000, or roughly triple the number there when he took office 22 months ago.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces, has highlighted signs of progress, but others have expressed skepticism. General Petraeus and the United States ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, met Mr. Obama when he stepped off Air Force One on Friday after the 13-hour flight.
The president’s visit came at a time of renewed tension between American and Afghan allies. Mr. Karzai has spoken out lately against special-operations raids that American officers believe have proved especially effective in rooting out insurgents. Mr. Karzai’s government is also embroiled in a conflict over fraud in recent parliamentary elections that Western diplomats had hoped would show improvement in a flawed democracy.
Mr. Obama’s plane touched down even as State Department cables obtained by the group WikiLeaks and made available to a number of news organizations laid out a devastating portrait of a society awash in corruption and graft that has been fostered by Mr. Karzai’s own government. The cables questioned whether Mr. Karzai will ever be “a responsible partner” and depicted him as “erratic” and “indecisive and unprepared.”
But unlike his March trip, when Mr. Obama pressed Mr. Karzai over corruption, the president arrived this time intent on working around the frictions between the two governments. The White House shifted its approach to Mr. Karzai after that March trip, concluding that public differences were doing more harm than good.
Mr. Obama began talking with Mr. Karzai by videoconference every six weeks or so. And even after Mr. Karzai lashed out at the American military last month, Mr. Obama played down the dispute when they met shortly afterward at the NATO summit meeting in Lisbon.
“We have to make sure that we understand our objectives are aligned; the endpoint that we want to reach is the same,” Mr. Obama said in Lisbon. Of Mr. Karzai’s concerns, the president said “we should be sensitive to them and we will be listening to him.” But he added, “At the same time, he’s got to be sensitive to our concerns.”
As has become customary under both Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush, the trip to Afghanistan was carried out in clandestine fashion. Mr. Obama slipped out of the White House on Thursday night after presiding over a Hanukkah celebration, and boarded Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base for the flight.
Many White House officials were kept in the dark about the journey, as was the Afghan government. The president’s published schedule for Friday listed him meeting with advisers in the Oval Office and then making a public statement on the latest jobs report, with the schedule reporting that “the location of the statement is T.B.D.,” or to be determined.
He left Washington at an exceptionally busy moment, as he struggles with Congress over a host of issues like tax cuts, arms control, gays in the military and immigration during an abbreviated lame-duck session. A bipartisan advisory commission he appointed was scheduled to vote on a plan to curb the deficit on Friday.
Mr. Obama’s trip was his third outside the United States in the month since the mid-term elections, when his party lost control of the House and saw its majority trimmed in the Senate. No foreign policy challenge is as risky or central to his presidency as the war in Afghanistan.
While he has escalated forces in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama has sought a way to end the American war effort there. When he ordered the latest 30,000 troops to the war zone last December, he vowed to begin withdrawing forces in July 2011, a deadline intended to force Afghan authorities to step up while reassuring Americans that the war was not endless. Mr. Obama reasoned that if the modified counterinsurgency strategy was not working by then, it would be time to change course anyway.
The deadline, though, roiled the region. Many players interpreted it as a sign that the Americans were on the way out, and began looking to cut deals for what would come next. To emphasize that the beginning of a withdrawal did not mean that Americans would leave all at once, Mr. Obama and other NATO leaders in Lisbon laid out a four-year transition plan.
Starting in the new year, NATO troops will begin thinning out its forces in specific regions, and gradually handing them over to Afghan security forces. NATO troops may still operate in a supporting role in those regions, and will keep control much longer in the most turbulent areas, like Kandahar. If circumstances allow, the Afghans will take the lead throughout the country by the end of 2014.
But if the troop buildup was supposed to do the Taliban enough damage to push the enemy to the bargaining table for a political reconciliation, the effort suffered a setback recently when Afghan and foreign officials discovered that a supposed high-ranking Taliban figure engaged in secret talks was actually an imposter.