Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama walks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace on Sunday night in Kabul.
President Obama walks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace on Sunday night in Kabul. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Air Force One loaded its passengers and crew in a hangar at Andrews Air Force Base in darkness on Saturday, and took off at about 10 p.m. with all of the windows closed. The president's plane landed 13 hours later at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, just as the sun was going down. Two helicopters ferried President Obama, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and a small pool of reporters to Kabul, landing at the presidential palace. The short flight, too, was made in secret, with lights out.
President Hamid Karzai greeted the president, and they reviewed an honor guard of the Afghan army, a small contingent of the growing army now being trained by U.S. forces who are eager to turn over the fight against the Taliban to homegrown forces. They then met for about 25 minutes, with a small group of advisers in attendance on both sides. We were told there would be further face-to-face meetings for the two presidents later this spring — probably in May — in Washington.
On the flight over, we were told by the president's national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James Jones, that the discussion with Karzai would focus on certain issues the U.S. had expected the Karzai government to tackle after its narrow victory in last year's disputed election. These included promises of measures against corruption in government and narco-trafficking in the countryside, as well as the wider distribution of power and government jobs.
After about two hours in Kabul, we choppered back under a nearly full moon to Bagram, where the president spent time with troops stationed there. He spoke to a group of about 2,500 gathered for a midnight meal in the huge, arched tent called the "clam shell," including a shout-out to Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines — as well as to the many civilians present.
The commander in chief was greeted by an enthusiastic cheer from the men and women, most of them in uniform, who had waited in the mess hall anticipating his arrival. He had removed the suit jacket and tie he wore in Kabul, substituting a brown leather jacket from Air Force One that was reminiscent of the famous bomber jacket popularized by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II.
Obama addressed the crowd for about 20 minutes, giving a spirited defense of the war itself. He said he would never ask them to serve — and would bring them home "right away" — if he determined they were not there defending the vital interests and national security of the U.S. The troops listened and interrupted several times with cheers and applause, notably when the president thanked them for their service and sacrifice.
In tone and urgency, it was a speech not unlike those the president has been giving in recent weeks on health care, substituting as subject the mission in Afghanistan. But the president did not have a teleprompter and spoke from a text, which broke up his usual rhythm and at times distracted him. The audience cheered lustily again as Obama finished and shook hands with officers and enlisted men and women onstage.
The president also visited the smaller dining hall known as the "Dragon Mess Hall," where he again was greeted with full-throated enthusiasm. He also visited the Bagram hospital to talk to wounded troops. We were not allowed to accompany him on that visit.
Between the meetings at the clam shell and mess hall, the president had a 15-minute meeting with McChrystal, the commanding officer in Afghanistan; Ambassador Eikenberry, who was previously the U.S. commander; National Security Adviser Jones; Gen. Doug Lute; and Col. John Tien, who is senior director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the National Security Council. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was also present for that meeting.
After about six hours on the ground, we returned to Air Force One and prepared to take off before sunrise. With one refueling stop en route, we expect to be back in Washington around midmorning Monday.