Obama Addresses Troops In Afghanistan On Eve Of Memorial Day

President Obama made a surprise visit Sunday to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. The president addressed troops, thanking them for their service on the eve of Memorial Day. White House correspondent Scott Horsley is traveling with the president and joins NPR's Arun Rath.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. President Obama made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan today. It was a chance to say thank you to the 32,000 military troops serving there on this Memorial Day weekend.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When it comes to supporting you and your families, the American people stand united. We support you. We are proud of you. We stand in awe of your service.

RATH: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is traveling with the president and joins us now. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

RATH: So Scott, this trip was kept a secret until the president arrived at the Bagram Airfield. It's a long trip. How did they manage to keep it under wraps?

HORSLEY: Well, they've had some practice with this. This is the fourth time the president's made a clandestine visit to Afghanistan. And the drill is pretty similar each time. He snuck out late Saturday from the White House in a quiet motorcade rather than a noisy helicopter. Air Force One left Andrews in darkness and arrived here at Bagram the same way. Reporters even had our cell phones taken away from us until we were well up in the air out of communication's range.

RATH: What is the president's message on this trip?

HORSLEY: Well, this is a very U.S. troop-focused visit. He's not meeting with Hamid Karzai or either of the candidates looking to replace the Afghan president. Aids say he didn't want to get involved in Afghan politics at a sensitive point in that election. So instead, he's spending most of his visit here talking with service members. And he brought some entertainment along with him. Country music singer Brad Paisley traveled along with the president and he performed a little Memorial Day weekend concert.

RATH: And this visit comes at a time when the president's under pressure to make some decisions about the U.S. role in Afghanistan going forward.

HORSLEY: That's right. The number of U.S. troops has already been cut by about two-thirds from its peak. And Obama is committed to winding down the war by year's end.

OBAMA: For many of you, this will be your last tour in Afghanistan.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: And by the end of this year the transition will be complete and Afghans will take full responsibility for their security and our combat mission will be over. America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.

(APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: The question now is whether a small number of U.S. troops stays behind in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to support those Afghan forces. And the president told his military commanders today, a decision is likely to be announced fairly soon. In fact, it could come as early as Wednesday when Obama's set to deliver the commencement address at West Point.

RATH: The president's also facing criticism back home about the long wait times that veterans are facing at VA hospitals. Has that played into the calculations made around this trip?

HORSLEY: White House aides insist it did not. They say this trip has been in the works for several months, well before the VA scandal became front page news. That said, Obama did tell troops today, as he often does, that caring for the nation's veterans is not just a promise. He said, it's a sacred honor.

RATH: NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley, traveling with the president in Afghanistan today. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you. Happy Memorial Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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