KABUL, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama made an unannounced three-hour visit to Afghanistan late Friday night amid renewed concerns about his administration’s embattled efforts to begin bringing American troops home next year after a decade of war.
Amid the tightest of secrecy, Obama flew into Bagram Air Base where he told thousands of boisterous American service members that they were 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 offense. Tired of playing defense.”
Obama’s visit came as his administration is in the final stages of evaluating the impact of the president’s decision last December to send more than 30,000 new American forces to this country in a critical “surge” meant to forestall failure in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 1,300 U.S. service members since 2001.
And it comes as the White House is looking to contain damage caused by the unauthorized release of confidential diplomatic cables that have exposed pervasive American concerns that high-level Afghan corruption has hobbled the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan.
Obama arrived in Afghanistan hours after WikiLeaks released leaked 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.
An unusual dust storm forced Obama to scrap plans to fly to Kabul for a face-to-face meeting with Karzai. Plans for a video conference were also scuttled 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 meant to deliver a morale boost to American soldiers during the cold holiday season.
"President Karzai is aware that the reason for the president's visit - President Obama's visit - is to be with our troops and civilians but I think it's an opportunity for them to continue their discussions," said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
Rhodes downplayed the diplomatic damage from the WikiLeaks release, saying “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.” Rhodes also said there was "
Relations between Washington and Kabul have again been tested by release of the unauthorized release of the private diplomatic assessments of Karzai, his family and his political allies.
While Obama thanked American leaders and soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, he made no reference to Karzai in his 20-minute address.
The Obama administration is in the final stage of assessing the impact of the 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.