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Obama Makes Surprise Visit to Afghanistan

President Barack Obama speaks to troops at a rally during an unannounced visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, Dec. 3, 2010
President Barack Obama speaks to troops at a rally during an unannounced visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, Dec. 3, 2010
Kent Klein

U.S. President Barack Obama has made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, to thank U.S. troops for their service. Bad weather forced Mr. Obama to cancel a planned meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Because of the dangerous situation in Afghanistan, the president's trip was kept secret until shortly before he arrived.

Mr. Obama, wearing a leather jacket, spoke to more than 3,800 troops in a hangar at Bagram Air Base and thanked them for their service, especially during the holidays. "So on behalf of me, on behalf of Michelle, on behalf of Malia and Sasha, on behalf of more than 300 million Americans, we are here to say thank you," he said. We are here to say thank you for everything that you do."

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The president told the troops they have succeeded in breaking the Taliban's momentum. "You are going on the offense - tired of playing defense - targeting their leaders, pushing them out of their strongholds. Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control, and more Afghans have a chance to build a more hopeful future."

Mr. Obama said the troops' mission is important in ensuring that terrorists will never again be able to use Afghanistan as a base for attacking the United States. "And that is why you are here. That is why your mission matters so much. That is why you must succeed. Because this effort is about the safety of our communities back home and the dignity of the Afghan people, who do not want to live in tyranny," he said.

Before speaking to the troops, the president met with the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General David Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry.

Mr. Obama also visited wounded soldiers at a military hospital and awarded five Purple Hearts, the medal given to U.S. troops wounded in battle.

The president also held a 15-minute telephone call with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The two leaders had been scheduled to meet over dinner, but strong wind, dust and cloud cover forced the cancellation of Mr. Obama's helicopter ride to Kabul. A planned secure videoconference was also scrapped.

White House officials say the president's talk with Mr. Karzai built on their meeting in Lisbon less than two weeks ago, in which they discussed plans to gradually prepare Afghan forces to take over their country's security.

The phone call came at a difficult time in U.S.-Afghan relations. Leaked cables from U.S. diplomats describe rampant corruption at the top levels of the Afghan government. They also portray Mr. Karzai as weak and paranoid but shrewd.

The president's trip also comes days before a full review of his plan for the war in Afghanistan. On the flight to Bagram, White House officials said the review will not include any major policy changes.

This was Mr. Obama's second visit to Afghanistan as commander-in-chief.

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