BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama slipped unannounced into dangerous Afghanistan on Friday, one year after widening an ever deadlier war and just days before a pivotal review about the 9-year-plus conflict.
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.
He was to spend up to six hours in Afghanistan. His meeting with President Hamid Karzai was supposed to be at the capital Kabul but bad weather forced the two to talk via video link from the giant Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base here and 30 miles outside the capital.
Obama also was to meet with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO war commander in Afghanistan, and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
Obama's trip was meant to show personal resolve toward ending a war that was launched in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and is now raging in its 10th year, making it the longest U.S. conflict other than Vietnam.
He also wanted to personally thank the troops at a time when millions back home are thinking of holiday peace, not war. This has been the deadliest year to date for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. More than 450 have been killed in 2010.
The president's visit comes nearly a year to the day after he announced he was sending another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to try to gain control — and then get the United States out — of a worsening conflict.
The timing is also significant because Obama is expected within a couple weeks to receive a report about whether the revamped strategy he unveiled a year ago for Afghanistan and Pakistan is working as intended. The review will guide the direction of the U.S.-led war, one that has seen deteriorating support from the American people.
Obama and Karzai met less than two weeks ago at a NATO summit in Portugal. The two leaders and their governments need each other but share a blunt and at times contentious partnership, tested by questions of trust and the high costs of war.
Since the summit, the release of thousands of sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks website added another strain. One U.S. memo said Karzai freed dangerous detainees and pardoned suspected drug dealers because they had connections to powerful figures, adding to the multiple allegations of corruption in his government.
Obama was to speak to troops near the end of his visit at the Bagram complex, the hub of U.S. forces in the country.
The site itself been a target of extremists at different times. In May, Taliban insurgents armed with rockets, grenades and suicide vests stormed the air field in the darkness before dawn, triggering an eight-hour firefight that killed an American contractor and at least 10 attackers and wounded nine U.S. service members.
Obama's trip to Afghanistan is his second there as commander in chief; the first was in March 2010. He also made a similarly unannounced and highly secure trip to Iraq as president in 2009.
For security, the White House said nothing in advance about Obama's travels.
He left the executive mansion without notice on Thursday night after a celebration of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. The small group of reporters traveling with Obama aboard Air Force One on the 13-hour flight consented to confidentiality and reported on Obama's trip only after he was in place in Afghanistan.
The U.S. now has about 100,000 forces in Afghanistan, a record total. More than 1,300 U.S. forces have died here since the war began, and more of them in 2010 than in any other year as the fight against the Taliban has grown even fiercer.
Obama's plan is to start pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan in July. The goal is to shift control to Afghan authorities by the end of 2014, a deadline embraced by NATO partners, who have 40,000 of their own forces in harm's way.
Yet much depends on the hastened training of Afghan forces amid the fighting. And the progress is precarious.
Just this week, six U.S. soldiers were killed by an Afghan border policeman who turned his gun on his American trainers. The Taliban claimed responsibility. On the night before Obama left for Afghanistan, top members of his national security team stood on a cold tarmac at Dover Air Force Base, honoring the six soldiers who returned in flag-covered caskets.
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