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On Memorial Day Eve, President Obama Visits Troops In Afghanistan

(This post was last updated at 2:17 p.m. ET.)

President Barack Obama is greeted by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham and Marine General Joseph Dunford, commander of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as he steps off Air Force One at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.
Evan Vucci / AP
President Barack Obama is greeted by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham and Marine General Joseph Dunford, commander of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as he steps off Air Force One at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.

Under the cover of darkness and on the eve of Memorial Day, President Obama landed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan for an unannounced visit with U.S. troops.

After a concert from country music star Brad Paisley, Obama spoke before a rally of about 3,000 American troops. Currently, there are 32,000 Americans currently serving in Afghanistan.

Obama made a bit of news, saying he was hopeful that a new president in Afghanistan would lead to a signed security agreement that would leave a small number of American troops in the country after 2014. That agreement has been elusive under the government of Hamid Karzai.

Obama, however, mostly focused on thanking the troops and reminding them about the beginning of America's longest-running war.

"To all of you, I'm here on a single mission and that is to thank you for your extraordinary service," Obama said to resounding applause.

Obama got a few laughs with references to sports and his singing, but toward the middle of the address he became serious.

He said the U.S. is at a pivotal moment in its mission in Afghanistan. At the moment, U.S. forces are playing a support role to Afghan security forces. By the end of the year, the U.S. combat mission will come to an end.

"For many of you, this will be your last tour in Afghanistan," Obama said, again receiving a raucous applause.

He then brought the story full circle. He talked about visiting 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," he said. "This is why you are here."

Obama said that it was U.S. troops and American civilians that helped put al-Qaida on "its heels in this part of the world." It was American intervention that brought democratic reform and advances in public health, literacy and education for women.

"Even with all the challenges," Obama said, "more Afghans have hope for their future and that is because of you."

NPR's Scott Horsley, who is traveling with the president, reports Obama also received an on-site briefing from his military commanders and will visit wounded servicemen on the base.

Scott continues:

"The show of support for men and women in uniform comes as Obama is trying to tamp down criticism at home over the treatment of veterans seeking care at VA hospitals. In his weekly address Saturday, the president said the nation must work harder to ensure that military veterans get the benefits they've earned. 'They've done their duty,' he said, 'and they ask nothing more than that this country does ours.'

"On Wednesday, Obama is set to deliver the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. That's the setting where in 2009 he announced a troop surge that pushed U.S. force levels in Afghanistan to a peak of 100,000, while also setting a timetable for withdrawal. The president now has to decide whether any U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, with the limited mission of supporting Afghan forces and battling terrorists. Any such residual force is contingent on agreement from the next Afghan president."

Obama made a similar trip to Afghanistan in 2012. He delivered a speech then in which he said that after more than a decade war, the U.S. was on a path toward peace.

The Los Angeles Times spoke to a "senior advisor" who gave the paper a preview of the speech Obama is expected to deliver on Wednesday.

The paper reports that Obama will outline a second-term foreign policy that is "interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral."

The paper adds:

"Obama believes that 'we need to put that to use in an international system that is sustainable and enduring,' the advisor said, 'and that can address challenges, from traditional ones like maritime and trade issues, to emerging ones like climate change.'

"Obama sees the U.S. moving out of a period of war and entering a new one marked by different global priorities, advisors say."

Update at 3:05 p.m. ET. Additional Clarity To Come:

During a press gaggle aboard Air Force One en route to Afghanistan, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said President Obama wanted to meet with his ambassador and general face-to-face before making a decision on what troop levels should look like after 2014.

Rhodes was asked if he had made a decision regarding the troop level. He said:

"He has not made the decision yet. Again, I think he wanted to — he's been consulting with his national security team. We had a NSC meeting on this topic recently. Again, he'll be meeting General Dunford and Ambassador Cunningham.

"I do think that — I'd say a number of things. Number one, of course we still need a BSA to have troops here post-2014, although, again, both candidates have expressed their support for such a BSA. Secondly, I think that you can expect to hear additional clarity from the President about his thinking on Afghanistan in the coming days. He obviously has a series of speeches and engagements on national security, and he'll certainly want to talk about Afghanistan in the context of the future of America's foreign policy and national security priorities. And there's a NATO Defense Ministerial on June 4th, where we will be coordinating with the Alliance. So you should expect to hear more from the President on Afghanistan after this trip."

It's possible, Rhodes said, that Obama would announce something during his West Point speech.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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