Barack Obama makes surprise visit to Afghanistan

President is expected to announce shortly how many troops the US is keeping in the country

President Barack Obama shakes hands with troops after delivering remarks at Bagram Air Base in Kabul today. Photograph: Reuters

President Barack Obama shakes hands with troops after delivering remarks at Bagram Air Base in Kabul today. Photograph: Reuters

 

President Barack Obama, on a visit to Afghanistan, said this evening his administration would likely announce soon how many troops it will keep in the country, as it winds down its presence after nearly 13 years of war.

Speaking at a briefing by military commanders at Bagram Air Base, Mr Obama said one reason for his trip was to discuss the US footprint for the rest of this year - when the bulk of troops are scheduled to be withdrawn - and afterward.

“We’ll probably be announcing some decisions fairly shortly,” said Mr Obama, who flew into the main US base in Afghanistan for a brief, surprise visit.

The trip on Memorial Day weekend, his fourth visit to Afghanistan, comes as Obama is buffeted by criticism at home that his handling of foreign policy has been too passive in dealing with crises from Syria to Ukraine and Russia.

He is to respond to the criticism in a speech on Wednesday at the US Military Academy at West Point.

Mr Obama also delivered remarks to troops at Bagram, getting hollers from the crowd as he told them: “I’m here on a single mission and that is to thank you for your extraordinary service.” He was also set to visit wounded soldiers.

His trip was bound to be seen by some critics as an attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of military veterans who are alarmed at allegations that government-run medical facilities in the United States have not provided timely care for veterans.

At Bagram, Mr Obama was briefed by army general Joseph Dunford, who heads US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, and US Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham.

Mr Obama had no plans to visit the Afghan capital Kabul or meet president Hamid Karzai and other government officials during a trip expected to last only a few hours. This allows him to avoid getting immersed in the country’s presidential election campaign to choose a successor to Mr Karzai, who has long been out of favor in Washington.

In an indication of the frayed relations between the Obama administration and the Karzai government, the Afghan president rejected an invitation extended through the US embassy to meet Mr Obama at Bagram, Abdul Karim Khurram, Karzai’s chief of staff said.

“President Karzai said he would warmly welcome him if he comes to the palace but in no way he would go Bagram to meet him,” Mr Khurram said.

Mr Karzai has irked Obama by refusing to sign a bilateral security agreement that Washington wants before it will agree to leave a contingent of US troops behind in Afghanistan for training Afghan forces and counter-terrorism operations, after the formal US troop drawdown.

In turn, Mr Karzai has long expressed anger at civilian deaths in Afghanistan. He told the Washington Post in an interview in March that the war in Afghanistan was not fought with his country’s interests in mind.

In a statement issued before Mr Obama’s arrival in Afghanistan, Mr Karzai criticized the US phone surveillance program, saying it violates his country’s sovereignty.