KABUL, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama paid a surprise, three-hour holiday season visit to Afghanistan Friday night in an effort to inject a jolt of determination to U.S. forces as he ponders how to close the conflict during his presidency.
Amid tight secrecy, Obama flew into Bagram Air Base, where he told thousands of boisterous American service members that they're turning the tide in the fight against Taliban insurgents and their militant allies.
"We said we were going to break the Taliban's momentum and that's what you're doing," Obama said in his 20-minute address. "You're going on the offense, tired of playing defense, targeting their leaders, pushing them out of their strongholds."
The Obama administration is in the final stages of evaluating the impact of his decision one year ago to send more than 30,000 new American forces to this country. The "surge" was intended to forestall failure in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 1,300 U.S. service members since 2001.
He traveled here as the White House is looking to contain damage caused by the unauthorized release of confidential diplomatic cables that have exposed deep U.S. concerns that high-level Afghan corruption has hobbled the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan.
Obama arrived in Afghanistan just hours after the WikiLeaks website released damaging classified cables from U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in which the top American diplomat in Kabul characterized Afghan President Hamid Karzai as an erratic and unreliable ally.
That perception has been reinforced by Karzai's renewed calls for the U.S. military to scale back use of controversial night raids by Special Forces in Afghanistan.
While officials at the presidential palace in Kabul rolled out the red carpet in advance of a planned 45-minute dinner meeting with Karzai and Obama, a fast-moving dust storm scuttled the event.
Efforts to set up a video conference were also abandoned as the two leaders instead spent about 15 minutes on the phone.
White House aides said Obama's visit has been in the works for a month and that it was primarily meant to deliver a morale boost to American soldiers during the cold holiday season.
Obama and Karzai met last month for an hour at the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, where international leaders solidified plans to give Afghan security forces the lead role in protecting more of their country next year.
"President Karzai is aware that the reason for the president's visit — President Obama's visit — is to be with our troops and civilians," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "Obviously it would be nice to be able to share a meal together, but at the same time they were able to be face-to-face less than two weeks ago."
Rhodes downplayed the diplomatic damage from the WikiLeaks release, saying that, "We've weathered those kinds of revelations before.
"We've had ups and downs in terms of the kind of public revelations," he said. "What we're focused on is making sure that the two governments are aligned."
While Obama thanked American leaders and soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, he made no reference to Karzai.
During his first presidential visit to Afghanistan in March, Obama contributed to the friction by delivering a blunt message to Karzai in which he pressed the Afghan leader to crack down on corruption.
Karzai responded days later by lashing out at Americans and telling Afghan lawmakers that he might join the Taliban if he continued to face undue pressure from outsiders.
Dressed in a brown leather jacket and blue slacks, Obama spent 30 minutes at the base hospital, where he awarded five Purple Hearts and met with an American platoon that lost six of its members this week when an Afghan border police officer opened fire on the soldiers during a training mission in eastern Afghanistan.
Speaking to the assembled troops moments later about the meeting with those platoon members, the president seemed burdened, pausing his words, and wiping an eye.
The incident has raised new concerns about a central pillar of American plans for ending combat missions in Afghanistan in four years: Recruiting a reliable Afghan security force capable of protecting the country.
Hours before Obama arrived, investigators confirmed that the attacker was an Afghan policeman.
"This is a terrible tragedy," said Gen. Bismillah Khan, the Afghan Interior Minister. "The actions of this lone gunman are in no way a reflection of the great working relationship we enjoy with the International Security Assistance Force," the name of the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan.
After his remarks, Obama spent roughly half an hour in the hangar working the rope line — shaking hands with troops, signing autographs, posing for photos and offering his personal thanks and words of encouragement.
The Obama administration is in the final stage of assessing the impact of the military surge, which has helped to dislodge Taliban fighters from key strongholds in southern Afghanistan, but has not yet definitively changed the course of the war.
White House officials expect to weigh the assessment in little more than a week.
The timing of the trip leaves Obama vulnerable to criticism that he isn't willing to get his hands dirty on domestic politics. Democrats want to see Obama more engaged in pressuring Republicans to vote to extend middle-class tax cuts, unemployment benefits and other initiatives in the waning days of the lame duck Congress.
As he flew to Afghanistan, new economic figures showed an increase in the U.S. unemployment rate to 9.8 percent, and his nonpartisan deficit commission failed to reach a consensus on recommendations to reduce the national deficit.
(Nissenbaum reported from Kabul; Talev reported from Washington.)
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