| GEO World|
Obama on surprise trip to Afghanistan
| Updated at: 2236 PST, Friday, December 03, 2010|
Obama on surprise trip to Afghanistan
BAGRAM AIR BASE: US President Barack Obama on Friday paid a surprise lightning visit to Afghanistan to consult leaders and greet troops as he takes a hard look at whether his war strategy is working.
Obama left the White House quietly and flew to Kabul under cover of darkness. It was the second such visit since Obama became president, with his aides announcing nothing of his trip beforehand due to security concerns.
Obama, who has tripled US troop numbers in Afghanistan, was spending a mere three hours in the country at Bagram Air Base, the headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division.
Sporting a leather bomber jacket, Obama was met by General David Petraeus, commander of US troops in Afghanistan, and US ambassador Karl Eikenberry. He went straight to a base hospital to meet wounded soldiers spending the holiday season on the battlefront.
White House officials, pointing to winds of more than 70 kilometers (45 miles) an hour, said Obama curtailed an original trip planned for up to six hours and will not take the short helicopter ride into Kabul.
Instead, Obama spoke by telephone with President Hamid Karzai after technical problems with a videolink, aides said. White House spokesman described the Kabul weather as "windy and cold."
A spokesman for Karzai said that a joint press conference was cancelled "because of bad weather."
Obama's trip comes as his administration faces new friction with Karzai over embarrassing assessments of him in leaked diplomatic cables. The Obama administration is working on a review of its war strategy to be completed before the president leaves for holidays in late December.
The review comes after last month's summit in Lisbon of the NATO alliance, which backed Obama's goal of handing over security to the Afghan police and military by next year, with a view to ceding full control by the end of 2014.
Some 100,000 US troops are fighting in Afghanistan as part of Obama's ramped-up strategy to fight insurgents, nine years after the United States ousted the Taliban regime for harboring September 11 attack mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Obama had originally planned to start withdrawing the troops in mid-2011, believing the deadline was vital to pressure Karzai to take more responsibility for security.
After the US election victory of the Republican Party, which says the deadline encourages the Taliban to wait it out, the administration has shifted emphasis to say that the troop withdrawal would take place through 2014.
White House aide Ben Rhodes told reporters on Air Force One there was "no major new piece" of news that Obama would bring into his meeting with Karzai but that he would glean information for the December review.
"It's not about that," Rhodes said, calling the visit "more about thanking the troops."
Rhodes said the White House began preparing the Kabul visit more than a month ago as Obama wanted to visit US troops and civilians in Afghanistan between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"Basically to wish them happy holidays. It's a particularly tough time of year," Rhodes said.
But the trip comes a day after WikiLeaks released a new catch of secret US diplomatic cables, which showed renewed US questions about Karzai's leadership.
In one cable, Eikenberry portrayed Karzai as "paranoid and weak," "unfamiliar with the basics of nation building" and "overly self-conscious" that his time of glowing reviews from the West had passed.
The Afghan presidency declined to comment those on allegations. Deputy spokesman Simak Hirawi said Karzai would hold a news conference on Saturday "to answer journalists' questions."
One cable said that Ahmad Zia Massoud -- a first vice president until last year -- was caught entering the United Arab Emirates with 52 million dollars.
Another presidential aide said "This is a stupid allegation. Can you believe someone could take 52 million dollars and transfer it in a plane to another country? Can you believe it is possible?"