DEC 3 - Thank you for everything you do, President Obama told nearly 4,000 troops assembled at Bagram Air Base during a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Friday.
The president left under cover of night on Thursday and greeted Gens. David Petraeus and Karl Eikenberry upon arriving to deliver a holiday message of thanks and something of pep talk to troops on the base.
After speaking with Afghan President Hamid Karzai for 15 minutes, the president met with the Petraeus and Eikenberry, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Doug Lute, the special assistant to the president for Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the small pool of reporters traveling with him. A planned meeting with Karzai had to be canceled, because weather conditions prevented a presidential helicopter ride to Kabul. The pair last met for about an hour in Lisbon in November.
The war in Afghanistan, which has entered its tenth year, has become increasingly unpopular here at home and in Europe. The president's trip comes just days after NATO allies agreed at the meeting in Portugal to an eventual exit strategy from the country that would have Afghan forces taking the lead for their own security across the country by 2014.
The president last visited Afghanistan in March. Today he spent 30 minutes at Bagram hospital meeting with patients, nurses, doctors and staff and awarding five Purple Hearts and met with the surviving members of a platoon that lost six troops this week, before delivering a roughly 20-minute speech to the troops. Obama apologized for keeping the service members "up late" and coming on such short notice, but said he wanted to make sure he could spend a little time this holiday season with troops, calling them the finest fighting force the world has ever known.
"Thanks to your service we are making important progress," said the president, clad in an Air Force One bomber jacket. "You are protecting your country. You're achieving your objectives. You will succeed in your mission."
He said he knew that troops in Afghanistan faced a "tough fight." US troops are set to begin drawing down in July of next year, but how many depart the country will depend on conditions on the ground. The White House is set to conduct a comprehensive review of its strategy in Afghanistan later this month, but no major changes are expected and the president today insisted that progress was being made.
"We said we were going to break the Taliban's momentum, and that's what you're doing." Obama said. "You're going on the offense, tired of playing defense, targeting their leaders, pushing them out of their strongholds. Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and more Afghans have a chance to build a more hopeful future."