U.S. President Barack Obama, paying a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Friday, praised U.S. troops for "important progress" in a nine-year war that is increasingly unpopular at home.
He spent four hours at an airbase outside the Afghan capital and canceled a planned helicopter trip to Kabul to meet Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai because of bad weather. Instead, the two leaders spoke by telephone.
Obama's second visit to Afghanistan as president came as the White House prepared to release a review of the war's strategy in the week of Dec. 13, and the day after leaked cables detailed U.S. concerns about Karzai's abilities and widespread fraud in the country.
Neither topic came up during their 15-minute phone conversation, Obama Afghan war adviser Douglas Lute told reporters aboard Air Force One as the president flew home.
"Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control," Obama said, in a speech filled with tributes to serving troops and the burden carried by their families.
"We said we were going to break the Taliban's momentum and that's what you're doing, you're going on the offense, tired of playing defense," he said to the crowd of mostly U.S. troops.
But the trip comes at a time of spiraling violence and record casualties. Over 1,400 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan since 2001, and a third of them lost their lives in the past year alone.
Obama decided in 2009 to ramp up force levels to widen the Afghan military campaign, and many of the extra troops have been thrown into tough fighting, including a major offensive in the southern Taliban heartland of Kandahar.
"Prefer extra sleep"
White House officials emphasized the main purpose of Obama's journey was a visit with the troops around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, rather than a fact-finding mission before the upcoming strategic review.
"I know it's not easy for all of you to be away from home especially during the holidays and I know it's hard on your families, they have got an empty seat at the dinner table," Obama told the crowd, after visiting wounded soldiers.
He awarded five Purple Heart medals in the Bagram hospital.
Not everyone was thrilled to see Obama. One Air Force captain, who did not want to give his name, said he would have preferred extra sleep to a late evening presidential visit.
Obama has set a mid-2011 target to start the withdrawal, and U.S. and NATO officials say they aim to complete the handover to Afghan forces by 2014, a goal set by Karzai.
In addition to talking to Karzai, Obama got briefings from key advisers, including General David Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and special forces commanders.
U.S. officials have said they believed NATO forces were making progress in training Afghan security forces, who will take control of security as foreign troops begin to leave.
ReutersLast Mod: 04 Aralık 2010, 15:38