WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama swooped into the Afghan war zone for a rare visit with troops Sunday and renewed a pledge to bring U.S. military involvement there to a “responsible end” this year.
Speaking to a crowd of 3,000 service members in a hangar at Bagram Air Base, Obama paid tribute to the work they and their predecessors have done at a time when his administration is planning a withdrawal from the region.
“Everybody knows Afghanistan is still a very dangerous place,” Obama said. “But just look at the progress you have made possible—Afghans reclaiming their communities, girls going to schools, increases in life expectancy.
“That progress is because of you and the more than half a million Americans in the military who have served here in Afghanistan. More Afghans have hope in their future and so much of that is because of you.”
Obama made the trip to Afghanistan at a delicate moment in the timeline for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. His administration is reviewing the pace of troop withdrawals from the country as it winds down U.S. participation in the regional struggle against terrorists.
But with Afghan President Hamid Karzai unwilling to sign a bilateral security agreement that would protect the rights of Americans who remain in the country after the withdrawal, Obama is considering a drawdown more speedy and complete than some of his military advisers want.
On the way to Bagram on Sunday, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama has not yet decided on the size of a force to leave in place after the withdrawal this year.
In preparation for that decision, the president wanted to hear from the commander on the ground and from U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan, in addition to the many advisers he is consulting back in Washington.
“It is important for him to come” to Afghanistan, Rhodes said, “before he articulates a decision.”
Obama did not meet with Karzai, with whom he has frosty relations, nor did he meet with the two remaining candidates to replace Karzai as president. He was on the ground for about four hours.
Karzai’s office issued a statement saying the Afghan president had been invited to meet with Obama at Bagram, but declined. The White House said Obama had chosen not to meet with Karzai.
Obama was briefed by military commanders, telling them that the current “process of transition” is possible only because of the success of their mission.
Sunday’s trip was Obama’s fourth to the war zone. He had declared Iraq a “dumb war” as he rose to national prominence, but presided over a buildup in forces once in office in an effort to defeat al-Qaida and eradicate its safe havens.