BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN – After paying a surprise visit Sunday to soldiers fighting the last battles of America’s longest war, U.S. President Barack Obama promised a decision on post-2014 troop numbers in Afghanistan “fairly shortly.”
Obama made a covert night-time trip from the White House to Bagram Air Base aboard a darkened Air Force One on a visit Sunday meant to hail the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan ahead of the U.S. Memorial Day weekend.
But his four-hour visit provoked a new spat with outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, with whom Obama has an extremely strained relationship.
U.S. officials said Obama offered to see the Afghan leader at the sprawling Bagram base but decided not to go to his palace in central Kabul. They did not say how much notice they had given the Afghan leader.
Karzai interpreted Obama’s invitation as a snub, saying in a pointed statement that “the government of Afghanistan is prepared to warmly welcome the U.S. president in the presidential palace, but it does not intend to go to Bagram to meet Obama.”
A U.S. official summed up the latest disconnect in the dysfunctional relationship between Washington and a man it once hailed as Afghanistan’s savior by saying, “We’re not surprised that it didn’t work on short notice.”
Obama later telephoned Karzai on his flight out the country and the pair talked for 15 to 20 minutes, Obama telling his counterpart he will be in contact before announcing his decision about troop numbers, a senior administration official said.
During his trip Obama avoided Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the two candidates in a June runoff election to become the next president, with aides saying that he did not want to insert himself in Afghanistan’s “election season.”
Obama renewed his commitment to a limited presence in Afghanistan for U.S. and NATO troops after the withdrawal of combat forces at the end of the year.
He said he hopes that the new Afghan president will agree to a bilateral security agreement mandating the mission, which Karzai has refused to sign. U.S. officials believe either Ghani or Abdullah will do so.
Reaching the end of a war that Obama escalated after taking office, he argued the steep sacrifices of U.S. troops — more than 2,300 have died — are being rewarded.
“After more than a decade of war we are at a pivotal moment,” Obama told a hangar full of cheering U.S. servicemen and women.
“By the end of this year, the transition will be complete and Afghanistan will take full responsibility for their security.
“Our combat mission will be over. America’s war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.”
The president said that extremist groups like al-Qaida will no longer be able to use Afghanistan as a haven to plan terrorist strikes such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Obama is heading toward a decision on how many U.S. and NATO troops to leave behind to train Afghan troops and support anti-terrorism missions.
He told the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Joseph Dunford, and the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, James Cunningham, that he will make an announcement “fairly shortly.”
The administration has decided it cannot wait until the final results of Afghanistan’s runoff to declare its intentions and that NATO allies need to know what the U.S. is planning.
Defense officials are “encouraged” that Obama appears to be leaning toward the recommendation made by military commanders for 10,000 troops to remain.
But it is unclear if Obama will opt for that number or something lower, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. plans to retain a small garrison in Afghanistan after 51,000 international combat troops withdraw at the end of the year are in limbo over Karzai’s refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement.
Obama is under intense political pressure at home amid allegations that possible misconduct and poor administration in the Veterans Affairs Department has left retired warriors waiting months for treatment. Some are said to have died as a result.
“We’re going to stay strong by taking care of our wounded warriors and our veterans,” Obama told the troops, as America prepared to honor its fallen on Memorial Day on Monday.
Obama toured an operations center and visited a hospital for wounded soldiers at Bagram.
Country music star Brad Paisley also traveled aboard Air Force One and whipped up the crowd with his folksy parables of American life.
The White House took elaborate security precautions to stop word of Obama’s trip from leaking out.
The president ditched his normal motorcade and reporters traveling on his plane were forbidden to tell editors and family members where they were headed.