Obama Makes Surprise Visit To Afghanistan Robert Siegel talks with NPR's Ari Shapiro about President Obama's unannounced trip to Afghanistan on Friday.
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Obama Makes Surprise Visit To Afghanistan

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Obama Makes Surprise Visit To Afghanistan

Obama Makes Surprise Visit To Afghanistan

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

GUY RAZ, host:

And I'm Guy Raz.

President Obama is on his way home this evening after a brief and unannounced visit to Afghanistan earlier today. The president flew overnight from Washington to Bagram Airfield. There, he addressed U.S. military personnel in an aircraft hangar.

President BARACK OBAMA: We said we were going to break the Taliban's momentum, and that's what you're doing. You're going on the offense, tired of playing defense, targeting their leaders, pushing them out of their strongholds.

RAZ: President Obama speaking earlier today to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

SIEGEL: NPR's Ari Shapiro is traveling with the president. And, Ari, first, what was the scene like there in Afghanistan?

ARI SHAPIRO: About 3,000 troops crowded into a hangar here at Bagram Airfield. President Obama is in the country of Afghanistan for a total of three hours. It was originally supposed to be twice that length. He was going to helicopter to Kabul and back in order to meet with embassy workers and President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul.

But because of weather, that part of the trip was canceled. Instead, he came here. He visited a hospital and delivered Purple Hearts to some wounded warriors there. He met with some troops who had lost comrades just this past week, and then he spoke to 3,000 or so troops here in this hangar.

SIEGEL: Ari, you mentioned Afghan President Hamid Karzai. This trip, of course, comes after the release of the WikiLeaks cables in which American complaints about President Karzai are detailed and descriptions of corruption in Afghanistan are described. Has that story cast a shadow over this trip at all?

SHAPIRO: Well, it has certainly cast a shadow over the way the trip is viewed. The White House will tell you that these are not new issues. While the WikiLeaks cables certainly show very explicit examples of the kind of corruption that has been so problematic here in Afghanistan, White House officials will say it's a problem, but it's not a new problem.

There was supposed to be a meeting at the palace with President Hamid Karzai. That was turned into a phone conversation instead because of the weather. It might have been an awkward meeting given that the front page of The New York Times was describing this corruption that goes all the way up to allegedly Hamid Karzai's brother. But because it was a phone conversation, we don't know what they said. And we don't know whether it was awkward or not.

SIEGEL: Now, I want you to provide some context for us here about U.S. policy deliberations over Afghanistan. The White House should be at the end of its year-end review and its decisions as to whether to go forward with the policy as it is in Afghanistan. Where do they stand?

SHAPIRO: That's right. Well, the timeline here is that a year ago President Obama announced his new strategy for Afghanistan, which included sending more troops. Those troops are all here now. And now, the next deadline is July of 2011 when troops are supposed to begin leaving.

But the Afghanistan strategy included an annual review, and that first annual review is scheduled to be done in just a couple of weeks. White House spokesman Ben Rhodes told us on the Air Force One flight over here that the week of December 13th, we can expect to see the results of that review. He said it's not going to be a new strategy. It's not going to be a huge rollout or something dramatically different the way the event was a year ago. Instead, it's going to be an evaluation of what's working well and what needs to be changed.

So while this trip may inform some of the findings of that review, spokesman Ben Rhodes said we shouldn't expect it to dramatically change the results of the review.

SIEGEL: And so the date July 2011 still stands as when we'll begin to see a drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan?

SHAPIRO: Well, the date still stands. But what the date means exactly is a little bit mushy. You know, the White House says the drawdown will be based on conditions on the ground. There's no guarantee that a certain number of troops will leave or the troops will leave at a certain pace. The goal is to put Afghans in charge of the combat mission by 2014, but that doesn't even necessarily mean that the American combat mission will be done by 2014. So those dates seem to be firm. But what exactly the dates mean seems to be a little less firm.

SIEGEL: Ari, before you go, I just want you to clarify. This is a three-hour -reduced from a scheduled six-hour to a three-hour stopover in Afghanistan because of the weather - a tremendous amount of planning and travel to spend three hours there.

SHAPIRO: That's right. It is staggering to think about the amount of security and the amount of effort that was expended so that President Obama could visit. But typically, this is the way presidential visits to war zones have gone. The president's last and only other visit to Afghanistan as president was in March, and then, too, he arrived after sundown and left before sunrise. This time, we took off in darkness. We landed in darkness, and nobody was allowed to know about this until we touched down.

SIEGEL: NPR's Ari Shapiro traveling with President Obama in Afghanistan. Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Robert.

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