President Barack Obama slipped unannounced into dangerous Afghanistan on Friday, one year after widening an ever deadlier war and just days before a pivotal review about the 9-year-plus conflict. Plans for a face-to-face meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai were scrapped at the last minute.
Under intense security, Obama landed in darkness after a clandestine departure from the White House on Thursday, where plans of his trip into the war zone were tightly guarded. Obama stepped off Air Force One just after 8:30 p.m. local time, clad in a leather jacket.
He was to personally thank U.S. troops for their service during the holidays.
The White House said rough weather forced the president to abruptly drop plans to meet Karzai in Kabul. The White House determined the wind, dust and cloud cover made it unsafe for the president to fly by helicopter from the huge military complex here to the presidential palace.
In a rapidly changing sequence of events, the White House then said they would speak by secure videoconference -- but later said that, too, was dropped. Instead, the two leaders were expected to speak by phone.
In total, Obama was to spend three hours on the ground in Afghanistan, about half the time he had scheduled.
His visit to thank troops and civilian workers came ahead of an upcoming full review of his war plan later this month. He planned to visit embassy workers and wounded soldiers and speak to troops at a hangar here. On the flight, the White House said Obama's war review would include no major policy changes.
The secret trip has been in the works for more than a month. National Security aide Ben Rhodes said Obama wanted to go to Afghanistan between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"It's always tough to serve in harm's way but when you're away from loved ones in the holiday season it's particularly hard, and the president wanted the ability to come out and have some time with them," Rhodes said.
Rhodes said the scrapping of the personal visit with Karzai would not have consequences because the two just met at a NATO summit in Lisbon two weeks ago.
Obama's visit comes at a particularly awkward moment in already strained U.S. relations with Afghanistan. Leaked U.S. cables show American diplomats portraying Afghanistan as rife with graft to the highest levels of government, with tens of millions of dollars flowing out of the country and a cash transfer network that facilitates bribes for corrupt Afghan officials, drug traffickers and insurgents.
A main concern in the cables appears to be Karzai himself, who emerges as a mercurial figure. In a July 7, 2009, dispatch, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry describes "two contrasting portraits" of the Afghan president.
"The first is of a paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation building and overly self-conscious that his time in the spotlight of glowing reviews from the international community has passed," the cable says. "The other is that of an ever-shrewd politician who sees himself as a nationalist hero. ... In order to recalibrate our relationship with Karzai, we must deal with and challenge both of these personalities."
In Afghanistan on Friday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said weather and technical problems prevented the videoconference with Karzai.
Reporters learned late in the flight that the in-person meeting was canceled. Even Gibbs seemed surprised to learn of it. He was interrupted with the news on the weather problem after he had started a briefing with reporters traveling with Obama toward the end of the flight.
Obama was greeted on the tarmac by the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, and Eikenberry.