President Obama rallied the troops in Afghanistan during his first visit to the country as commander-in-chief today, acknowledging both military successes and personal sacrifices, and noting, "the United States of America does not quit once it starts on something."
He delivered a pep talk of a different kind to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan government officials, telling them they need to work harder to combat corruption and other problems within the country.
During a six-hour trip whose logistics were shrouded in secrecy, Obama's encouragement was more straighforward for approximately 2,000 U.S. and coalition troops and civilians who packed a tent at Bagram Air Force Base. The crowd applauded boisterously and snapped digital cameras as Obama entered clad in a brown leather bomber jacket bearing the presidential seal and 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.
"We can't forget why we're here," he added. "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."
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. 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.
He also made a surprise and secret visit to Baghdad in April 2009, and while in Iraq he addressed U.S. troops at Camp Victory.
Despite complaints about corruption and suspicions about the voting that led to Karzai's re-election in the fall, Jones said Karzai is an "adequate strategic partner" who was democratically elected in a sovereign nation.