Obama surprises US troops in Afghanistan

Obama surprises US troops in Afghanistan

Credit: AFP/Getty Images

US President Barack Obama does a Hawaiian "shaka" as he greets US troops during a surprise visit to Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul, in Afghanistan, May 25, 2014, prior to the Memorial Day holiday. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

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Posted on May 25, 2014 at 2:49 PM

Obama pledges to end Afghanistan war at year's end

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (AP) -- President Barack Obama is promising U.S. forces in Afghanistan that America's longest war will come to a close at the end of the year.

The president made a surprise visit Sunday to Bagram Air Field to celebrate the Memorial Day holiday weekend with troops.

He says the war is at a pivotal moment, with Afghan forces taking over primary responsibility for the security of their country.

Obama says the U.S. combat mission will end at year's end and the war will come to a responsible conclusion.

Obama heads back home later Sunday, stopping in Germany to visit hospitalized troops at Ramstein Air Base

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Obama signals US to keep limited Afghanistan role

By JULIE PACE
AP White House Correspondent

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (AP) -- President Barack Obama slipped into Afghanistan for a surprise visit Sunday and made clear that the U.S. will likely maintain a limited role here even after its combat mission ends this year and America's longest war comes to a close.

"America's commitment to the people of Afghanistan will endure," he pledged.

Speaking to troops gathered in an airplane hangar on this sprawling military base, Obama said the war had reached a pivotal point, with Afghan forces assuming primary responsibility for their country's security. But while many of the 32,800 U.S. forces now in Afghanistan will leave in the coming months, Obama said a continued military presence could help protect gains made during nearly 13 years of fighting.

"After all the sacrifices we've made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win and we're going to make sure that Afghanistan can never again, ever, be used again to launch an attack against our country," Obama declared.

At least 2,181 members of the U.S. military have died during the nearly 13-year Afghan war and thousands more have been wounded.

The president appeared optimistic that the Afghan government soon would sign a bilateral security agreement allowing the U.S. to keep some forces in the country to train Afghans and launch counterterrorism operations. He has been considering keeping up to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and said he would announce his decision shortly.

That announcement could come as early as Wednesday, when Obama delivers the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Obama arrived at Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, under the cover of darkness for his first trip to the war zone since 2012. He spent about four hours at the base and did not go to Kabul, the capital, to meet with Hamid Karzai, the mercurial president who has had a tumultuous relationship with the White House.

Instead, officials said Obama wanted to keep the focus during his Memorial Day weekend visit on the troops serving in the war's closing months. Karzai's office said it had declined a U.S. Embassy invitation for him to go to Bagram to see Obama. The White House said Obama was not meeting with the outgoing Afghan president in order to avoid getting involved in Afghan politics.

Speaking to U.S. troops, Obama said, "For many of you, this will be your last tour in Afghanistan." His comment was met with an eruption of applause. "America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end."

Obama's visit, his fourth to Afghanistan as president, came at a time of transition for a country long mired in conflict. Most of the U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan are withdrawing ahead of the year-end deadline. Elections are underway to replace Karzai, the only president Afghanistan has known since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Karzai stunned the White House by refusing to sign a bilateral security agreement needed to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year. His decision has delayed U.S. decision making on a post-2014 presence, leading Obama to ask the Pentagon to work up plans for a possible full withdrawal of American forces.

But with both candidates on the ballot in next month's Afghan presidential election runoff vowing to quickly sign the security agreement, Obama appeared more confident Sunday that there would be a continued U.S. troop presence after 2014.

After an overnight flight from Washington, Obama attended a briefing with U.S. officials. He said that as he entered the briefing room, he saw a poster of the Twin Towers destroyed in the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"It's a reminder of why we're here," he said.

Obama was accompanied by a few advisers, including senior counselor John Podesta, whose son is serving in Afghanistan. Country singer Brad Paisley joined Obama on Air Force One and entertained the troops as they waited for the president.

As is typical of recent presidential trips to war zones, the White House did not announce Obama's visit in advance. Media traveling with Obama for the 13-hour flight had to agree to keep the trip secret until the president had arrived.

After his remarks, Obama visited with injured service members being treated at a base hospital. On the return flight home, Air Force One was refueling at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Obama was visiting with hospitalized U.S. troops.

The president's visit took place against the backdrop of growing outrage in the United States over the treatment of America's war veterans. More than two dozen veterans' hospitals across America are under investigation over allegations of treatment delays and deaths, putting greater scrutiny on the Veterans Affairs Department. The agency already was struggling to keep up with the influx of forces returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We're going to stay strong by taking care of our wounded warriors and our veterans," Obama said to applause. "Because helping our wounded warriors and veterans heal isn't just a promise. It's a sacred obligation."

Obama has staked much of his foreign policy philosophy on ending the two wars he inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush.

The final American troops withdrew from Iraq in the closing days of 2011 after the U.S. and Iraq failed to reach a security agreement to keep a small American residual force in the country. In the years that have followed the American withdrawal, Iraq has been battered by resurgent waves of violence.

U.S. officials say they're trying to avoid a similar scenario in Afghanistan. While combat forces are due to depart at the end of this year, Obama administration officials have pressed to keep some troops in Afghanistan after 2014 to continue training the Afghan security forces and undertake counterterrorism missions.

Pentagon officials have pushed for as many as 10,000 troops; others in the administration favor as few as 5,000 troops. Obama has insisted he will not keep any Americans in Afghanistan without a signed security agreement that would grant those forces immunity from Afghan law.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


A snapshot of US troop commitment in Afghanistan

By LOLITA BALDOR
Associated Press


 WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. and British forces began launching airstrikes into Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks against America. The initial strikes were aimed at Taliban troops, training camps and air defenses. By early November there were about 1,300 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Since then the U.S. force there has grown, reaching 100,000 in mid-2010 as President Barack Obama ordered additional troops sent in to quell escalating violence.

A snapshot look at the U.S. troop commitment to the war:

-Oct. 7, 2001: U.S. invades Afghanistan with massive air campaign.

-November 2001: 1,300 troops are in the country as commandos and ground troops, largely Marines, begin to arrive.

-December 2001: The U.S. force grows to 2,500 as troops scour and bombard the mountainous Tora Bora region for Osama bin Laden. Tribal leader Hamid Karzai is sworn in as chairman of the interim government.

-March 2002: 7,200 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan as U.S. leads Operation Anaconda, the largest ground assault of the war up to that point.

-December 2002: The U.S. ends the year with about 9,700 troops in Afghanistan, largely going after Taliban insurgents.

-December 2003: The U.S. ends the year with about 13,100 troops in Afghanistan.

-April 2004: U.S. troop numbers grow to 20,300 as the spring offensive looms and the U.S. builds up forces along the Afghan-Pakistan border and works to provide security for fledgling reconstruction projects.

-December 2006: U.S. force remains a bit more than 20,000, as attention has shifted to the escalating war in Iraq. Troops are concentrated in Taliban strongholds in the south and east, where fighting is fiercest.

-December 2007: U.S. forces climb to about 25,000 as Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen asserts that Iraq is the priority and the Afghanistan war is an "economy of force" operation.

-May 2009: U.S. troops levels surpass 50,000 as fighting intensifies and additional forces begin flowing in.

-December 2009: Troop level is more than 67,000; Obama orders 33,000 U.S. more troops to Afghanistan amid deteriorating security, escalating violence and troop deaths. Obama gives the Pentagon authority to deploy up to 102,000 to the war.

-August 2010: The additional troops are in, U.S. force size hits 100,000.

-May 2, 2011: Bin Laden is killed in Pakistan; U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan still hover around 100,000.

-June 22, 2011: Obama announces withdrawal plan.

-September 2012: Troop levels fall to 77,000, as the final surge troops prepare to leave Afghanistan.

-December 2013: There are about 46,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as the drawdown continues.

-March 2014: Obama orders the military to develop options for a complete U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan because Afghan President Hamid Karzai refuses to sign a security agreement.

-May 2014: There are about 32,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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