President Obama rallied coalition forces during a previously unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Sunday, telling them the 8-year-old war there remains “absolutely essential” to the security of the United States.
Speaking to about 2,000 U.S. and allied troops at the major U.S. base in Afghanistan, Obama said, “Those folks back home are relying on you.”
“I know it’s not easy,” he said. “You’re far away from home. You miss your kids, you miss your spouses, your family, your friends.” But he added, “If I thought for a minute that America’s vital interests were not served, were not at stake here in Afghanistan, I would order all of you home right away.”
Earlier Sunday, Obama met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In remarks after their meeting, Obama said he wanted to send a “strong message” that the partnership between the nations would continue.
Obama also invited Karzai to Washington, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the planned date for that visit is May 12.
“One of the main reasons I’m here is to just say ‘thank you’ for the incredible efforts of our U.S. troops and our coalition partners,” Obama said. “They make tremendous sacrifices far away from home, and I want to make sure they know how proud their commander in chief is of them.”
Karzai said he wanted to “express the gratitude of our people for the help that America has given us for the last eight years,” and he specifically thanked U.S. taxpayers for their aid in helping rebuild his country.
Obama’s trip began in secrecy, with the president leaving his Camp David, Maryland, retreat. He flew to Afghanistan on Air Force One, landing at Bagram Air Base at 7:24 p.m. (around 11 a.m. ET). Obama then flew on a helicopter to the Presidential Palace to meet with Karzai.
The two presidents took part in a 10-minute arrival ceremony before walking into the palace for their meeting. U.S. officials said the two leaders planned to first meet along with key aides, and then bring in Karzai’s cabinet.
In a briefing with pool reporters on the trip, National Security Adviser James Jones said Obama would push Karzai to improve efforts to meet benchmarks for better governance in his second term, which began last year.
According to Jones, Obama planned to point out that more attention was needed to certain issues such as a merit-based system for appointing key government officials, battling corruption and taking on narcotics trafficking that helps fund insurgents.
The trip came right after what has been perhaps the most successful week of Obama’s presidency, in which he signed into law comprehensive health care legislation — his top domestic priority — and announced plans to sign a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia on April 8.
Gibbs said Afghan authorities were notified of Obama’s trip on Thursday. The president previously postponed a trip to Indonesia and Australia, planned for March 21 to 26, in order to see through passage of the health care bill.
Since taking office, Obama has ordered the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan while also saying he planned for combat forces to start coming home in July 2011.
Karzai has said that by the end of 2010, Afghan security forces will be able to take over some security responsibilities from international forces. By the end of his second term in 2014, Karzai has said, he would like his government to have full responsibility for security.
Karzai emerged victorious from August presidential elections that were marred by widespread fraud. Two months after the vote, a U.N.-backed panel of election monitors threw out nearly a third of Karzai’s votes, citing fraud. Left short of a majority, Karzai agreed to a runoff with challenger Abdullah Abdullah, but Abdullah withdrew just before the runoff vote.
The trip is Obama’s second to Afghanistan. He first traveled there in 2008, four months before his victory in the election that made him president. On that visit, part of a broader trip that included the Middle East, Obama traveled to eastern Afghanistan to meet with U.S. forces and also met with Karzai.
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