BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama slipped unannounced into dangerous Afghanistan today, one year after widening an ever deadlier war and just days before a pivotal review about the 9-year-plus conflict.
Plans for a face-to-face meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai were scrapped at the last minute. Instead, the two leaders spoke by phone, Obama at the air base and Karzai in Kabul.
Under intense security, Obama landed in darkness after a clandestine departure from the White House on Thursday, where plans of his trip into the war zone were tightly guarded. Obama stepped off Air Force One just after 8:30 p.m. local time, wearing a leather jacket.
He was to personally thank U.S. troops for their service during the holidays.
The White House said rough weather forced the president to abruptly drop plans to meet Karzai in Kabul. The White House determined the wind, dust and cloud cover made it unsafe for the president to fly by helicopter from the huge military complex here to the presidential palace.
In a rapidly changing sequence of events, the White House then said the two would speak by secure videoconference — then said that, too, was dropped.
In total, Obama was to spend three hours on the ground in Afghanistan, about half the time he had scheduled.
His visit to thank troops came ahead of an upcoming full review of his war plan later this month. On the flight, the White House said the review would include no major policy changes.
The secret trip had been in the works for more than a month. National Security aide Ben Rhodes said Obama wanted to go to Afghanistan between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“It’s always tough to serve in harm’s way but when you’re away from loved ones in the holiday season it’s particularly hard, and the president wanted the ability to come out and have some time with them,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes said the scrapping of the personal visit with Karzai would not have consequences because the two just met at a NATO summit in Lisbon two weeks ago.
Obama’s visit comes at a particularly awkward moment in already strained U.S. relations with Afghanistan. Leaked U.S. cables show American diplomats portraying Afghanistan as rife with graft to the highest levels of government, with tens of millions of dollars flowing out of the country and a cash transfer network that facilitates bribes for corrupt Afghan officials, drug traffickers and insurgents.
A main concern in the cables appears to be Karzai himself, who emerges as a mercurial figure. In a July 7, 2009, dispatch, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry describes “two contrasting portraits” of the Afghan president.
“The first is of a paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation building and overly self-conscious that his time in the spotlight of glowing reviews from the international community has passed,” the cable says. “The other is that of an ever-shrewd politician who sees himself as a nationalist hero. … In order to recalibrate our relationship with Karzai, we must deal with and challenge both of these personalities.”
In Afghanistan today, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said weather and technical problems prevented the videoconference with Karzai.
Reporters traveling with Obama were escorted outside the massive air field hanger to get a glimpse of the conditions that grounded Obama here. The wind was blowing strongly, kicking up dust clouds as troops streamed in to hear Obama. An American flag whipped against its pole.
Journalists who had gone to the presidential palace were told by officials that Obama was expected, and they pointed out camera angles to capture where both leaders would be standing. An American flag hung outside a doorway. U.S. armored vehicles were securing entrances to the palace. Carpets were ready to be unrolled.
The news of the cancellation of the in-person meeting with Karzai was conveyed late in the flight. Even Gibbs seemed surprised to learn of it. He was interrupted with the news on the weather problem after he had started a briefing with reporters traveling with Obama toward the end of the flight.
Obama was greeted on the tarmac by the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, and Eikenberry.
The president later met with Petraeus and Eikenberry and headed to a hospital on the base to visit wounded soldiers.
The war in Afghanistan is the nation’s longest after Vietnam, launched in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Obama 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 an additional 30,000 troops to try to gain control — and then get the United States out — of a worsening conflict.
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.
Obama’s trip to Afghanistan was his second as commander in chief; the first was in March 2010. He made a similarly unannounced and highly secure trip to Iraq as president in 2009.
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 the trip only after he was 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.
Overall, Obama’s approval rating on the war has held at around 50 percent since March 2010, though support for the war itself is lower. According to a September AP-GfK poll, just 37 percent of Americans said they favored the war in Afghanistan, the lowest reading measured in AP polling during Obama’s tenure.