President Obama returns to Washington this morning after making a surprise weekend visit to Afghanistan where he rallied U.S. troops and met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The secret six-hour trip, Obama's first to the country as commander-in-chief, came as thousands of additional U.S. troops pour into Afghanistan as part of a new military strategy he initiated late last year.
In a rousing address to U.S. service members at Bagram Air Force Base, Obama acknowledged both the military successes and personal sacrifices of the ongoing war, saying "the United States of America does not quit once it starts on something."
"We can't forget why we're here," Obama said. "We did not choose this war. This was not an act of America wanting to expand its influence, of us wanting to meddle in somebody else's business. We were attacked viciously on 9/11, when thousands of our fellow countrymen and women were killed."
The crowd of more than 2,000 troops applauded boisterously and snapped digital cameras as Obama, clad in a brown leather bomber jacket bearing the presidential seal, shook hands with officials and troops on his way to the podium.
"I want you to understand there's no visit that I considered more important than this visit that I'm making right now," Obama said. "It is a privilege to look out and see the extraordinary efforts of America's sons and daughters here in Afghanistan.
He delivered a pep talk of a different kind to Hamid Karzai and other Afghan government officials, telling them they need to work harder to combat corruption and other problems within the country.
Obama's first visit to Afghanistan as president began as Air Force One made a secret landing at Bagram at 10:54 a.m. ET, or 7:24 p.m. local time, on Sunday. Soon afterward, Obama boarded a helicopter bound for the presidential palace in Kabul to meet with the Afghan officials.
"In coming into Kabul, you could see the change in terms of increased electricity production," Obama said after his half-hour meeting with Karzai. "The American people are encouraged by the progress that's been made."
He cited military progress as well but added, "We also want to continue to make progress on the civilian process," including governance, anti-corruption and rule of law.
"All of these things end up resulting in an Afghanistan that is more prosperous and more secure," Obama said.
Gen. James Jones, the U.S. national security advisor, underscored the emphasis on corruption within the Afghan government.
"The president [Karzai] needs to be seized with how important that is," Jones told reporters after Karzai and Obama met.
Karzai has been invited to Washington on May 12 to have a further discussion of long-term strategic interests, officials said.
Karzai said he and Obama today had a "good discussion" on Afghan and regional issues and the continuing struggle against extremism.
He said he wanted to "express the gratitude of our people for the help that America has given us for the last eight years," particularly for U.S. taxpayer funds that have helped rebuild institutions in his country.
Obama previously visited Afghanistan once as a senator, on July 19, 2008, during the presidential general election.