BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday for an unannounced visit to mark Memorial Day with U.S. troops, now in the final months of America's longest war, and to begin final discussions over the size of the U.S. force that will remain beyond the end of the year.
Inside a cavernous hangar with a tennis-court-sized American flag as a backdrop, Obama told a raucous audience of about 3,000 U.S. troops that the American public "stands in awe of you," grateful for their service and united in support of veterans as they return home.
"For many of you, this will be your last tour in Afghanistan," Obama said to roars, adding that at the end of the year, "America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.
"That progress is because of you," he said, "and the more than half a million Americans in the military who have served here in Afghanistan."
Obama departed Washington on Saturday night under cover of darkness and arrived at this U.S. base outside Kabul, the capital, under the same secrecy. It was his fourth trip to Afghanistan as president and his first in two years.
The visit lasted less than four hours. But it came at a crossroads moment for Afghanistan's political transition as the long tenure of President Hamid Karzai winds down and for the Obama administration's postwar strategy, which advisers say he will begin describing publicly in the coming weeks.
Obama met first with Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, and Ambassador James Cunningham to receive a battlefield update and discuss the civilian and military resources needed here after this year to continue training Afghan forces and to assist in specific counterterrorism missions.
Obama will begin outlining those plans Wednesday in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where he intends to trace the broader shift under way, more than a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, from an American wartime foreign policy to a postwar one.
"We are at a bit of a turning point in our foreign policy generally," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters aboard Air Force One. "Our foreign policy is going to be a lot different than it has been over the past decade, and the president will speak to what that transition will mean."
A transition is also under way in Afghanistan, which is in the midst of the first democratic transfer of power in the country's long history.
Obama did not meet with Karzai, with whom he has had a stormy relationship, but they spoke by phone for about 20 minutes before Obama left Bagram. A senior administration official said Obama praised Karzai for progress being made by Afghan security forces and for his country's successful first-round election in April and said he continued to support Afghan-led peace negotiations with the Taliban.
For the most part, Obama is biding his time until Karzai's tenure, which has spanned the post-Sept. 11 period, ends this summer. The country's presidential election in April produced two finalists — former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and onetime World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani — who are scheduled for a runoff June 14. Administration officials said before the visit began that Obama would not inject himself into the runoff campaign by meeting with either candidate or discussing the race.
"We are mindful that we are in the middle of an election season," Rhodes said. But he added that Obama's visit was meant, in part, to assure the Afghan public that "no matter what happens, we have an enduring commitment to Afghanistan."
Obama and his military command are eager for the election to be resolved. The winner will be asked immediately to sign a security agreement that will help determine how many U.S. forces, now numbering about 33,000, will remain in Afghanistan after the end of the year. The number could range as high as 10,000 troops to meet what Rhodes said would be a twin training and counterterrorism mission.
Karzai confounded Obama last year by refusing to sign the agreement after months of negotiation, saying that such a significant step should be left to his successor. Both Abdullah and Ghani have stated publicly that they intend to sign within days of taking office, probably in July.
Obama said the signing would allow planning to begin for a "limited" military presence beyond the end of the year.
The public centerpiece of Obama's visit was his address to U.S. troops, who were entertained beforehand by country music star Brad Paisley. Paisley, who traveled aboard Air Force One for the visit and who has performed at the White House for veterans and their families in the past, called the event "the honor of my life."
A Karzai spokeswoman, Adela Raz, said that the U.S. Embassy tried to arrange a meeting during Obama's visit to Bagram but that the Afghan president declined. Raz said Karzai invited Obama to the presidential palace instead.
A bilateral meeting was not planned, the White House said in a statement, because the trip was "focused on thanking our troops."