U.S. President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday where he met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and rallied U.S. troops serving in the war-torn country. During his visit, which lasted less than six hours, the president praised Afghan efforts to secure the country and pressed the Afghanistan's leader to improve governance and crack down on corruption.
Mr. Obama's first trip to Afghanistan since becoming president came under a cloak of secrecy and darkness, with news organizations learning of the visit only when the president's plane landed at Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul. After a helicopter ride into the capital, President Obama met with his Afghan counterpart at the presidential palace.
At a joint appearance afterwards, Mr. Obama noted that recent months have seen military progress against insurgents. He added that similar progress must be made on civilian matters - including governance, fighting corruption and extending the rule of law.
U.S. officials have criticized rampant corruption in Afghanistan as well as the country's inability to consolidate democratic rule. Last year's presidential vote was marred by allegations of fraud.
President Karzai expressed gratitude for U.S. support during the past year. In particular, he thanked U.S. taxpayers for "rebuilding and reestablishing" Afghan institutions.
White House officials announced that President Karzai will visit Washington for talks in early May.
President Obama also addressed American troops at Bagram Air Base during his visit. He thanked the troops for their sacrifices and efforts to establish security in the war-torn country.
Mr. Obama also stressed that the United States is Afghanistan's partner and that the Afghan people can provide for their own security. "The Afghans have suffered for decades - decades of war. But we are here to help Afghans forge a hard won peace, while realizing the extraordinary potential of the Afghan people, Afghanistan's sons and daughters - from the soldiers, the police to the farmers and the young students," he said.
President Obama's trip came as U.S. and allied forces are working to consolidate their hold on territory in southern Helmand province, and to prepare for battle in Kandahar -- the birthplace and spiritual home of the Taliban.
Mr. Obama said that U.S. and allied forces are working to strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government. "Our broad mission is clear, we are going to disrupt, dismantle, defeat and destroy al-Qaida and its extremist allies. That is our mission. And to accomplish that goal, our objectives in Afghanistan are also clear. We are going to deny al-Qaida a safe haven. We are going to reverse the Taliban's momentum," he said.
Last year, President Obama announced a significant expansion of U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan, while promising an eventual drawdown of American forces in the country.
The troop surge is expected to raise the number of American forces in Afghanistan to about 100,000 - almost triple the number deployed when Mr. Obama took office a little more than a year ago.
He noted that U.S. efforts also include a critical civilian component to improve living conditions for the people of Afghanistan.