Obama lands in Afghanistan on surprise visit

Obama lands in Afghanistan on surprise visit

Afghanistan - President Barack Obama Sunday promised a decision on post-2014 troop numbers in Afghanistan "fairly shortly", after swooping out of the night sky on a surprise visit to soldiers fighting the last battles of America's longest war.

Obama made a covert night time trip from the White House to Bagram Air Base aboard a darkened Air Force One on a visit meant to hail the sacrifices of US soldiers in Afghanistan ahead of the US Memorial Day weekend.

But his visit of only a few hours provoked a new spat with outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai with whom Obama has an extremely strained relationship.

US officials said Obama offered to see the Afghan leader at the sprawling Bagram base but decided not to go to his palace in central Kabul. They did not say how much notice they had given the Afghan leader of Obama's arrival.

Karzai interpreted Obama's invitation as a snub, saying in a pointed statement that "the government of Afghanistan is prepared to warmly welcome the US president in the presidential palace, but it does not intend to go to Bagram to meet Obama." A US official summed up the latest disconnect in the dysfunctional relationship between Washington and a man it once hailed as Afghanistan's saviour, by saying: "We're not surprised that it didn't work on short notice." Obama also avoided Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the two candidates in a June runoff election to become the next president, with aides saying that he did not want to insert himself in Afghanistan's "election season."

War at an end

Obama renewed his commitment to a limited presence in Afghanistan for US and NATO troops after the withdrawal of combat forces at the end of the year.

He said he hoped that the new Afghan president would agree to a bilateral security agreement mandating the mission, which Karzai has refused to sign. US officials believe either Ghani or Abdullah will do so.

At the end of a war which Obama escalated after taking office, he argued the steep sacrifices of US troops - more than 2,300 have died - are being rewarded.

"After more than a decade of war we are at a pivotal moment," Obama told a hangar full of cheering US servicemen and women.

"By the end of this year, the transition will be complete and Afghanistan will take full responsibility for their security.

"Our combat mission will be over. America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end." The president said that extremist groups like Al-Qaeda would no longer be able to use Afghanistan as a haven to plan terror strikes like the ones on the US mainland on September 11, 2001.

Obama is heading towards a decision on how many US and NATO troops to leave behind to train Afghan troops and support anti-terrorism missions.

He told the top US General in Afghanistan Joseph Dunford and the US ambassador to Kabul James Cunningham that he would make an announcement "fairly shortly".

Deputy US National Security advisor Ben Rhodes said that Obama would provide some "clarity" on the issue in a speech at West Point military college on Wednesday.

The administration has decided it cannot wait until the final results of Afghanistan's run-off to declare its intentions and that NATO allies need to know what the US is planning.

Defence officials are "encouraged" that Obama appears to be leaning toward the recommendation made by military commanders for 10,000 troops to remain.

But it was unclear if Obama would opt for that number or something lower, officials told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

US plans to retain a small garrison in Afghanistan after 51,000 international combat troops withdraw at the end of 2014 are in limbo over Karzai's refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement.

Washington has warned that it has no choice but to prepare a full withdrawal, even though it remains open to the idea of a residual force.

Promise to veterans

Obama is under intense political pressure at home amid allegations that possible misconduct and poor administration in the Veterans Affairs department had left retired warriors waiting months for treatment. Some are said to have died as a result.

"We're going to stay strong by taking care of our wounded warriors and our veterans," Obama told the troops, as America prepares to honour its fallen warriors on Memorial Day on Monday.

Obama toured an operations centre and visited a hospital for wounded soldiers at Bagram.

Country music star Brad Paisley also travelled aboard Air Force One and whipped up the crowd with his folksy parables of American life.

The White House took elaborate security precautions to stop word of Obama's trip from leaking out.

The president ditched his normal motorcade and reporters travelling on his plane were forbidden to tell editors and family members where they were headed.

Phones and computer equipment were sequestered by the Secret Service before they boarded the plane.

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