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President Barack Obama is back in Washington D.C. today after yesterday's whirlwind visit to Afghanistan. Mr. Obama thanked U.S. troops at Bagram airfield. The trip had not been announced in advanced. It was the president's second visit to the war zone in his administration, and it comes as the Obama administration conducts a review of its Afghan war strategy.
NPR's White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro, was traveling with the President and filed this report while aboard Air Force One.
ARI SHAPIRO: This trip was a tightly held secret. Even reporters flying to Afghanistan were given only one day's notice. Air Force One took off in darkness and 13 hours later landed in darkness.
On the flight, White House spokesman Ben Rhodes said the trip had been planned for more than a month.
Mr. BEN RHODES (White House Spokesman): The president wanted to find a time in between Thanksgiving and Christmas when he go out to spend some time with the troops in particular, and our civilians in Afghanistan, basically to wish them a happy holidays.
SHAPIRO: Rhodes and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described the planned itinerary: a helicopter flight from Bagram Airbase to the embassy in Kabul, visits with embassy staff and a working dinner with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace. Then a White House staffer came into the conference room aboard Air Force One. There was a problem. Gibbs explained.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): We are still going, but the program is going to look and feel a lot different.
SHAPIRO: The helicopters were grounded in bad weather. The president would be on the ground three hours instead of six, with no trip to Kabul. The meeting with Karzai would be a phone call.
Not a big deal, said Rhodes. The leaders spent hours together just two weeks ago at the NATO summit is Lisbon.
Mr. RHODES: I think President Karzai understood the purpose of this was really for the President to spend time with the troops.
SHAPIRO: It might have been a bad time for a meeting anyway. The website WikiLeaks had just released documents showing deep American concern about Afghan corruption.
In one diplomatic cable Ambassador Karl Eikenberry asked how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government when the key government officials themselves are corrupt. The White House dismissed these cables as nothing new.
When the plane landed at Bagram, Eikenberry greeted the president, along with Commander David Petraeus, who oversees the forces in Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama then visited wounded troops at a hospital, and he met a platoon that lost six men just last week. In a hangar nearby, almost 4,000 servicemen and women were waiting for the president. One was Sergeant Deidre Taylor Scales from Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Sergeant DEDRE TAYLOR-SCALES (U.S. Army): I arrived here in June.
SHAPIRO: So you've been here a long time.
Sgt. TAYLOR-SCALES: I have.
SHAPIRO: And how does it feel?
Sgt. TAYLOR-SCALES: And it feels like military service.
SHAPIRO: Is it especially hard this time of year to be away from home?
Sgt. TAYLOR-SCALES: Yes. It is very hard this time of year. But I did have the opportunity to decorate the chapel, so I put our three Christmas trees up. I'm feeling pretty good right now.
SHAPIRO: Do you have family back home?
Sgt. TAYLOR-SCALES: Yes, I do. I have (unintelligible) and two sons.
SHAPIRO: In Alaska?
Sgt. TAYLOR-SCALES: In Alaska, waiting for my return.
President BARACK OBAMA: We are here to say thank you for everything that you do.
SHAPIRO: The commander-in-chief stood in the middle of the cheering crowd wearing a brown bomber jacket with the presidential seal.
President OBAMA: One year ago I ordered additional troops to serve in this country that was the staging ground for the 9/11 attacks. All of those troops are now in place, and thanks to your service we are making important progress. You are protecting your country. You're achieving your objectives.
SHAPIRO: It's a sensitive moment for the Afghan mission. The White House is two weeks from finishing its annual assessment of what's working and what's not in the Afghanistan strategy.
American troops are scheduled to begin coming home this summer. The goal is to put Afghans in charge of combat by 2014. But violence and corruption are still huge problems. Polls consistently show that Americans oppose the war.
This trip was 36 hours in all. It was a long journey for the president, but it's been an even longer journey for those who've been fighting almost 10 years now.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, traveling with the president aboard Air Force One.
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