President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday for a Memorial Day weekend rally with American troops.
The commander-in-chief left Washington D.C. on Saturday night and landed at the Bagram Airfield just after 8 p.m. on Sunday local time. On board Air Force One was also National Security Advisor Susan Rice, advisor John Podesta (whose son is serving in the country), senior aides Dan Pfeiffer and Ben Rhodes, and country music star Brad Paisley, who planned to sing for the troops.
The president was briefed by U.S. commander in Afghanistan before addressing thousands of troops.
In remarks to the U.S. forces, which lasted about 20 minutes, Obama -- wearing an AF-1 bomber jacket -- said he was in Afghanistan for a single mission: to thank the troops for their “extraordinary service." He also reinforced the importance of their mission and reassured them about support for themselves and their family members upon their return home.
“We are proud of you. We stand in awe of your service,” the president said, promising America’s longest war would finally wind down at the end of the year. He said the U.S. was at a “pivotal moment” noting by the year’s end, the U.S. combat mission will be over. Obama told the troops that he’s been encouraging business owners: “I keep saying back home when you want someone who knows how to get the job done, hire a vet.”
Obama mentioned his recent visit to the Sept. 11 memorial in New York City. "We resolved to never forget and do everything in our power to prevent this from happening again," the president said. "This is why you are here."
The president ended his speech joking that while he may not be able to take a “selfie” with everyone, he’ll shake every hand at Bagram Air Base.
The president is also expected to visit injured service members at a hospital on the base. Obama has been to Afghanistan four times as president, but the trip is his first to the country since being re-elected in 2012.
There are approximately 32,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of 100,000 during the surge in mid-2010. The U.S. wants to keep a small number of troops in the country beyond 2014 to help train local Afghan security forces. The plan is largely dependent on the next Afghan president, who will be elected next month. So far, Karzai has refused to sign off on such a bilateral security agreement, resulting in a rocky relationship between Washington and Kabul. Obama said he was optimistic that the new president would greenlight a security agreement.
Rhodes -- who revealed the visit has been in the works for several weeks -- said the administration has "learned some tradecraft" of putting together such a secret trip as this -- and that the Secret Service is very capable, especially over a holiday weekend.
The trip comes as the Obama Administration faces increasing criticism at home and abroad.
Back in the U.S., Obama has come under fire in the wake of the Veterans Affairs scandal and outrage over delays in life-saving care. He mentioned the allegations during his weekend address “In recent weeks, we’ve seen again how much more our nation has to do to make sure all our veterans get the care they deserve,” said Obama, adding: “As commander-in-chief, I believe that taking care of our veterans and their families is a sacred obligation.”
The commander-in-chief’s response to a number of foreign policy crises – from the chemical attacks in Syria to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea region in Ukraine -- has also come under fierce criticism, with many Republicans arguing the president has acted with passivity.
It’s an issue he’s expected to address while delivering the commencement speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Wednesday.
After the briefing by U.S. commanders, troop event, and hospital visit, Obama is expected to get back aboard Air Force One to return home. There are no plans for him to leave Bagram Airfield or meet with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.