Obama Rallies Troops in Afghanistan: 'Tired of Playing Defense'

Stormy weather greets the president on his surprise visit to Afghanistan.

December 3, 2010, 9:16 AM

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, Dec. 3, 2010— -- One year and two days after President Obama appeared before an audience at West Point and told the nation he was sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, he has come to meet with troops in the war-torn country for his second visit as commander in chief. He was greeted by bad weather and storms of an altogether different kind.

The rough winds and dark clouds could symbolize the challenges the president and his team face here as the war -- now in its 10th year -- risks being undermined by a corrupt government, a strong insurgency, leaks of classified cables, waning public support and shifting political winds.

In a pep talk to troops at the Bagram Air Base, Obama praised their work and expressed cautious optimism about the future.

"You are protecting your country. You are achieving your objective. You will succeed in your mission," a casually dressed Obama said to 3,850 troops in the audience. "We said we were going to break the Taliban's momentum, and that's what you're doing. You're going on the offense, tired of playing defense."

The president was originally scheduled to have a "working dinner" with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at his presidential palace in Kabul in this unannounced visit and to meet with civilian personnel at the, U.S. Embassy in the capital city.

Obama's arrival in Afghanistan was first reported by ABC News' Martha Raddatz, who learned of Obama's arrival independently while on assignment in Afghanistan and was not traveling with the White House press pool.

There are more than 1,000 U.S. government civilian employees here, from the State Department, USAID and nine other agencies, a tripling since the president announced his new policy one year ago.

But strong winds and low cloud cover made helicopter travel hazardous, so in the last few hours of the president's trip to Bagram on Air Force One, the Kabul part of the visit was scrapped.

The "ceiling" -- the cloud cover -- between Bagram and Kabul is less than 1,000 feet, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One. Wind speeds are 45 mph and above, with less than two miles of visibility.

"It all made helicopter travel not an option," Gibbs said.

Instead, the president spoke over the phone with Karzai for 15 minutes, before meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Gen. Douglas Lute.

Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications, Ben Rhodes, said the cancellation of the visit to the palace wasn't of tremendous importance, because the president and Karzai spoke at a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, a few weeks ago, after Karzai expressed frustration with night raids by ISAF forces and Obama said Karzai has "got to listen to us as well."

The president today met with eight wounded patients at Bagram -- five troops and three civilians -- and presented four Purple Heart awards. He also met with troops from the 101st Airborne Division, which is in the midst of its fourth combat deployment since 2003, having served two tours in Iraq and one previous 15 month rotation in Afghanistan from 2008 through 2009.

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.

Obama Visits Afghanistan

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.

The public is even more weary of the war than ever, with 54 percent saying things are going badly for U.S. forces, in a new USA TODAY/Gallup poll released this week. The survey also showed approximately four in 10 Americans believing U.S. troops should be withdrawn sooner than 2014 -- and half of Democrats feeling that way.

A Quinnipiac poll in November showed overall support for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in negative territory for the first time, 44 percent of the public supporting the U.S. role, 50 percent opposing it.

The new Congress the president will be dealing with next month may prove tricky. Many moderate Democrats supportive of the president's efforts were defeated, leaving the president a Democratic caucus that do not support the war. Republicans have been infused with a less predictable freshman class, many with roots in the Tea Party movement. White House officials have expressed concern that many may have a more isolationist view of the world.

ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this report.

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