US President Barack Obama on Sunday made a surprise visit to Afghanistan to thank American troops and civilians for their service ahead of the final pullout of NATO troops from the war-torn country.
Obama’s arrival at the Bagaram air force base late Sunday night is his first trip to Afghanistan in two years and the fourth in total and is, according to a presidential aide, to thank American troops and civilians for their service.
“It is an important moment in Afghanistan. This is a year of transition. The Afghan security forces have been fully in the lead for combat operations in Afghanistan, with our assistance and training,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters travelling with Obama to Afghanistan.
He said the election recently was successful as millions of Afghans turned out to vote and there are now two leading candidates in a run-off, and a prospect of the first democratic transition of power in Afghanistan’s history.
“So even with all the challenges and the continued instances of violence in Afghanistan, there has been I think important progress made, both in terms of security forces, in terms of the election, and the prospect of an Afghanistan that is able to sustain the gains that have been made over the last decade,” he said.
During his trip, that is expected to last a few hours, Obama would meet his top general and diplomat in the country.
Defending the decision of the US President to visit the country at this point of time, Rhodes said after the first round of the election went off well, they felt that there would be a good window to come on a troop-focused visit.
“We are mindful that it’s a political season in Afghanistan, and I think that accounts for the fact that we’re focusing our visit on Bagram. We don’t want to get into the middle of election season meeting with candidates and that type of thing.
“So, it’s a good time for the troops to hear from the President, and also for the Afghan people to know that no matter what happens in the election, that we have an enduring commitment to the people of Afghanistan and that, frankly, both candidates who are in the run-off have spoken very positively about the US-Afghan partnership, as well as the prospects for a BSA,” he said.
The surprise trip came as the US and NATO withdraw most of their forces ahead of a year-end deadline. Obama wants to keep a small number of US troops in Afghanistan after 2014 to train Afghan security forces. However, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to authorise the bilateral security agreement (BSA) and has to be signed by Karzai’s successor to become effective.
“It’s been two years since he’s been able to get to Afghanistan, and he felt that it was very important for him to express directly to the troops his gratitude,” Rhodes said.
Responding to questions, he said Obama has not made a decision yet on the number of troops in the country post 2014.
“We have had a range of options for the type of presence that we would maintain in Afghanistan after 2014. I think the important principles there are we’re focused on missions, and the principal missions are the two that the President has identified publicly, which are continued training of the Afghan National Security Forces and supporting their counterterrorism operations.
“In all cases, our combat mission here in Afghanistan would come to a conclusion at the end of 2014 consistent with our transition plan,” he said.
“Now, there are a range of different force structures that could accomplish those objectives. We’re looking into questions not just about the size of that force, but how long you sustain any potential troop presence after 2014,” he added.
“The main thing for us is how we can help the Afghan security forces sustain their own capability to be in the lead for security — so what type of support are they going to need after 2014. We’ve been looking very closely at those questions,” Rhodes said.
“We have been looking broadly at counterterrorism and how do you have a counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan, in South Asia, in cooperation with Pakistan that keeps al Qaeda core on its heels, but also how does it fit into the broader counterterrorism challenge across the entire region all the
way to North Africa.
“And that’s what the President will be discussing a bit in West Point,” the top White House official said.