President Obama makes surprise visit to Afghanistan

On an unannounced visit, Obama praised U.S. troops Friday and said his administration's surge over the past year has weakened the Taliban.
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 5:52 PM

On an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, President Obama praised U.S. troops Friday and said his administration's surge over the past year has weakened the Taliban.

The visit came just days before Obama is to receive a comprehensive assessment of the U.S. war effort there, specifically the effects of the surge of 30,000 troops that the president authorized a year ago.

"I wanted to make sure I could spend a little time this holiday with the men and women of the finest fighting force that the world has ever known," he told a crowd about 2,000 troops in a hangar at Bagram air base.

Obama added, "We said we were going to break the Taliban's momentum, and that's what you're doing."

Aides said the visit was primarily to thank the troops, but Obama did speak with Afghan President Hamid Karzai by phone. Obama had planned a trip to Kabul to visit the presidential compound but canceled because of stormy weather.

Obama also met with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. On a visit to the base hospital, Obama awarded five Purple Hearts to wounded soldiers.

Obama was expected to be on the ground in Afghanistan for three hours before flying back to Washington. It was his second trip as president to the nation where U.S. troops have now fought for more than nine years.

The visit occurred amid ongoing tension between Kabul and Washington over civilian deaths in the conflict and allegations of widespread corruption in the Afghan government. A number of U.S. State Department documents made public this week by the Web site WikiLeaks show U.S. officials depicting the Karzai regime as corrupt.

Obama aides played down any tensions from the WikiLeaks documents, which include Eikenberry referring to Karzai as a "paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation-building." They noted Obama and Karzai had a 40-minute discussion last month at a NATO summit in Lisbon.

"The president wanted to find a time in between Thanksgiving and Christmas when he could go out to spend some time with the troops, in particular, and our civilians in Afghanistan," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "Basically to wish them happy holidays. It's a particularly tough time of year."

The administration is the midst of a detailed review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan to see whether changes need to be made to the policy Obama outlined last year, which included the troop surge that brought the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan to about 100,000.

In addition, the number of U.S. civilians in the country tripled to more than 1,000.

Obama has pledged to start withdrawing troops in July but has said the size and pace of the U.S. drawdown would be based on "conditions on the ground."

Staff writers Ernesto Londono in Kabul and Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.

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