KABUL, Afghanistan –
It was a scene from a spy novel.
A little after 9:30 p.m. ET, I arrived at a back gate of Joint Base Andrews. No guard or intercom, I just drove up and it opened. I was in. The security guards verified my identity and I made my way to the rendezvous point. Typically, I would meet traveling White House press aides at the base passenger terminal, but not tonight. Very few people knew what we were doing there, so we met in a dimly lit parking lot.
Our bags were screened and we gave up all our electronics — laptops, mobile phones, cameras, anything that might have tracking software — and put them into bins. We would get the devices back about an hour after takeoff, officials said.
We rode a bus onto the tarmac where Air Force One was in shadow. No lights on, inside or out.
We boarded. Just before midnight, President Obama arrived. We didn’t see him, but more Secret Service agents boarded, the door was closed, and we were off. No lights on in the cabin for takeoff and the initial ascent. All window shades remained down.
In fact, we would not see daylight for more than 24 hours. The plan was to arrive in Afghanistan after dark and leave before daybreak. As we descended steeply to the runway at Bagram Airfield, again, all inside cabin lights were turned off.
We landed at the base at 10:20 p.m. local time and got onto Chinook helicopters that were waiting with rotors spinning. The short flight to Kabul was also in blackout — use of flashlights or phones was prohibited due to their back-lit screens. Pilots and gunners used night vision goggles to navigate.
We flew fast and low, skimming the mountain ridges that surround Kabul, the dark countryside suddenly giving way to the bright lights of the Afghan capital.
After landing at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters, we took a short motorcade to the Presidential Palace.
In the ornate atrium of the King’s Residence, Presidents Obama and Hamid Karzai signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement — a document that is intended to shape the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship for the next decade.
We hopped back in the motorcade for the drive back to ISAF and the helicopter lift to Bagram. Again, in blackout conditions.
In a hangar at the U.S. base, Gen. John Allen, ISAF commander, gave a rousing warm up talk to about 3000 service members, most of them Army from the 1st Infantry Division.
The President then spoke to troops, thanking them for their service and making sure they knew that the entire nation is behind them.
“I know it’s still tough. I know the battle’s not yet over. Some of your buddies are going to get injured and some of your buddies may get killed and there’s going to be heartbreak and pain and difficulty ahead,” he said. “But there’s a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices you’ve made.”
Obama then spent 45 minute shaking hands and taking photos with as many troops as possible. During a visit to the hospital on base here, the President gave out ten purple hearts.
At 4 a.m. local time, 7:30 p.m. ET, the President addressed the nation — that is, he addressed the United States from Afghanistan. It may well be the first time an “Oval Office Address” has been given from outside the country.
Eleven minutes later, we ran to the plane to make it out of there before sunrise.
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