The president also met with the unit that lost six soldiers earlier this week when an Afghan border police officer went on a shooting spree in Nangarhar province. The unit these soldiers were with had only 18 men, so one third of them were wiped out "in five seconds," a senior officer told Raddatz. The Taliban claimed that the police officer had joined the force so eventually he could carry out a shooting like this, a claim that U.S. officials doubt.
Obama mentioned the members of the platoon today in his remarks as a sobering reminder that war is costly.
"Progress comes at a high price," the president said. "We know their memories will never be forgotten. Their lives have been added to the lives of our nation."
The trip was shrouded in secrecy for security reasons, with the reporters who accompanied the president not permitted to announce his presence here until after the president landed.
This visit comes at a pivotal moment for the president. More than 1,300 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began, with more dying this year than any previous year, as Obama has increased the number of troops to 100,000.
This month, his administration will review the progress made in his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a process started in mid-October and helmed by Donilon and Lute, who are on this trip.
That assessment is expected to be completed the week of Dec. 12.
Last week, the Pentagon's semiannual report to Congress on the status of the war -- "Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan" -- indicated "uneven" progress, with violence increasing and corruption rampant.
Classified cables released by Wikileaks this week only emphasize these issues, with one October 2009 cable sent by the U.S. ambassador here, Karl Eikenberry, reporting that a meeting with President Karzai's half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, "highlights one of our major challenges in Afghanistan: how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt."
The White House sought to downplay the leaks, with Rhodes saying previous reporting and Wikileaks have revealed much about the problems in Afghanistan, whether corruption, stories about Karzai's alleged emotion instability, or the involvement of Pakistan's spy agency ISI in the insurgency.
"We've weathered those kinds of revelations before as it relates to President Karzai and the Afghan government," Rhodes said. "We"re all aware there are serious challenges in Afghanistan."
He said that the U.S. and Afghanistan are focused on "breaking the Taliban's momentum," building up Afghan security forces, and making sure al Qaeda and its affiliates have no safe haven in the country.
In eight months -- July 2011 -- the U.S. will begin withdrawing American troops, but both Karzai and the White House are now also putting a great deal of emphasis on a later date: 2014, when U.S. troops are to have completed the transition of handing over power to the Afghans, conditions permitting.
The principal reason for the trip is for the president to thank U.S. troops for their service during the holiday season, Rhodes told reporters traveling on Air Force One. "It's a tough time" for troops since they're away from their loved ones.