KABUL, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama paid a surprise, three-hour holiday season visit to Afghanistan on Friday night in an effort to inject a jolt of determination into U.S. forces as he ponders how to close the conflict during his presidency.
Amid tight secrecy, Obama flew into Bagram Air Base, where he told thousands of boisterous U.S. service members that they're turning the tide in the fight against Taliban insurgents and their militant allies.
"We said we were going to break the Taliban's momentum, and that's what you're doing," Obama said in his 20-minute address. "You're going on the offense, tired of playing defense, targeting their leaders, pushing them out of their strongholds."
The Obama administration is in the final stages of evaluating the impact of his decision one year ago to send more than 30,000 additional U.S. forces to this country.
The surge was intended to forestall failure in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 1,300 U.S. service members since 2001.
He traveled to Afghanistan as the White House is looking to contain damage caused by the unauthorized release of confidential diplomatic cables that have exposed deep U.S. concerns that high-level Afghan corruption has hobbled the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan.
While officials at the presidential palace in Kabul rolled out the red carpet in advance of a planned 45-minute dinner meeting for Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Obama, a fast-moving dust storm scuttled the event. Efforts to set up a video conference were also abandoned as the two leaders instead spent about 15 minutes on the phone.
White House aides said that Obama's visit had been in the works for a month and that it was primarily meant to deliver a morale boost to U.S. soldiers during the cold holiday season.
Obama and Karzai met last month for an hour at the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, where international leaders solidified plans to give Afghan security forces the lead role in protecting more of their country next year.
"President Karzai is aware that the reason for the president's visit — President Obama's visit — is to be with our troops and civilians," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "Obviously, it would be nice to be able to share a meal together, but at the same time they were able to be face-to-face less than two weeks ago."
While Obama thanked U.S. leaders and soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, he made no reference to Karzai.
Obama spent 30 minutes at the base hospital, where he awarded five Purple Hearts and met with a U.S. platoon that lost six of its members this week when an Afghan border police officer opened fire on the soldiers during a training mission in eastern Afghanistan.
Obama spent roughly half an hour in the hangar working the rope line — shaking hands with troops, signing autographs, posing for photos and offering his personal thanks and words of encouragement.