Obama Makes Surprise Visit To Afghanistan

President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday, during which he urged Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to rein in government corruption. It is Obama's first trip to Afghanistan since taking office, and his first trip since ordering 30,000 additional U.S. troops into the country to fight the Taliban. Host Guy Raz talks to NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley, who is traveling with the president.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of applause)

President BARACK OBAMA: How's it going, Bagram?

(Soundbite of shouting)

RAZ: President Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan today.

Pres. OBAMA: Well, you know, it turns out that the American people, they let me use this plane called Air Force One, and so I thought I'd come over and say hello.

RAZ: That's President Obama, addressing troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The trip was Mr. Obama's first as president and his first since he ordered an additional 30,000 troops to fight against the Taliban.

Pres. OBAMA: If the Taliban retakes this country, and al-Qaida can operate with impunity, then more American lives will be at stake. The Afghan people will lose their chance at progress and prosperity, and the world will be significantly less secure. And I'm as long as I'm your commander-in-chief, I am not going to let that happen.

RAZ: Air Force One landed under the cover of darkness at Bagram. The president was then flown by helicopter to Kabul, where he met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The president is already back in the air headed home.

NPR's Scott Horsley traveled with Mr. Obama to Afghanistan, and we spoke with him earlier.

Scott, what is the White House's explanation behind the timing of this trip? Why now?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, this is a trip that they've tried to make a couple of times in the past, and they say that either weather or logistics always got in the way before now. So they essentially had the plans in their pocket that they could kind of pull off the shelf, and when the president canceled his planned trip to Indonesia and Australia last week in order to monitor the health care debate, that opened up a window of opportunity.

RAZ: Now, Scott, the president visited with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Do you have a sense of what they talked about?

HORSLEY: Aides say Mr. Obama went into the meeting planning to pressure President Karzai on the steps his government needs to take to match up with the steps that U.S. and coalition forces are taking to increase security here in Afghanistan. That means they want to see better governance from the Afghan government. They want to see a stronger effort to combat narco-traffickers, and they want Karzai's government doing more to really reassure the people of Afghanistan that the central government is working for them.

There's been a lot of skepticism out of the countryside that the central government is really providing any services in a credible way to the Afghan people, and that makes them, of course, more vulnerable to the Taliban.

So the president went into the meeting saying look, U.S. forces are doing what they can to promote security. Now, your government needs to do its part. And we're told after the meeting that there were signs of progress, and in fact, Mr. Obama has invited his Afghan counterpart to Washington in May to continue the conversation.

RAZ: Now, Scott, of course, the Afghan conflict is still widely unpopular among Mr. Obama's base, Democratic voters. Is there a sense that part of this trip was to try and shore up more support for his strategy there?

HORSLEY: I'm not sure that this trip is going to make a whole lot of difference to the Democratic base, which is strongly against the Afghan war, as you say, but there has been some shift in the voting public as a whole.

CNN released a poll on Friday, showing that opposition to the war in Afghanistan had slipped below 50 percent for the first time since May. The approval of Mr. Obama's handling of the war in Afghanistan is now at about 55 percent according to that CNN poll. And something that the president talked about when he was addressing the troops here at Bagram Air Base is that there has been a growing support for the war since the United States adopted what he called a more clear mission.

RAZ: Now Scott, as we mentioned earlier, this was a surprise visit. You knew about it beforehand. You were sworn to secrecy, as a reporter traveling with the president. Can you describe some of the security that went into this trip?

HORSLEY: It was a different sort of trip. There was not the usual fanfare that accompanies a presidential trip. In fact, Mr. Obama loaded up Air Force One inside the hangar instead of out on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, where he usually does.

The shades were drawn on Air Force One as we left Washington and again as we arrived in Afghanistan. There were no lights on the helicopters that carried the president from Bagram into Kabul, and even the Afghan government itself was not informed that he was coming until Thursday, we're told.

RAZ: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. He's traveling with the president in Afghanistan.

Scott, thank you and see you back in Washington.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Guy.

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