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Obama Goes A Long Way To Spread Holiday Cheer

Troops crowd President Obama during his visit to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Friday.
Troops crowd President Obama during his visit to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Friday.

President Obama's surprise trip to Afghanistan on Friday was a tightly held secret. Even reporters flying to Afghanistan were given only a day's notice. Air Force One took off in darkness and 13 hours later, landed in darkness. On the flight, White House spokesman Ben Rhodes said the trip had been planned for more than a month.

"The president wanted to find a time in between Thanksgiving and Christmas when he could go out and spend some time with the troops in particular, and our civilians in Afghanistan, basically to wish them happy holidays," Rhodes said.

Rhodes and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described the planned itinerary: A helicopter flight from Bagram Air Base to the embassy in Kabul. Visits with embassy staff and a working dinner with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace.

Then a White House staffer came into the conference room. There was a problem.

Shortly, Gibbs had a revision to report. "We are still going, but the program is going to look and feel a lot different," he said.

The helicopters were grounded in bad weather.The president would be on the ground three hours instead of six, with no trip to Kabul. The meeting with Karzai would be a phone call. Not a big deal, said Rhodes. The leaders spent hours together just two weeks ago at the NATO summit in Lisbon.

"I think President Karzai understood the purpose of this was really for the president to spend time with the troops," he said.

It might have been a bad time for a meeting anyway. The website WikiLeaks just released documents showing deep American concern about Afghan corruption. In one diplomatic cable, ambassador Karl Eikenberry wondered "how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government when the key government officials themselves are corrupt."

The White House dismissed these cables as nothing new.

When the plane landed at Bagram, Eikenberry greeted the president, along with Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the forces in Afghanistan. Obama then visited wounded troops at a hospital and met a platoon that lost six men just last week.

In a hangar nearby, almost 4,000 servicemen and women were waiting for the president. One was Sgt. Dedra Taylor-Scales from Fort Richardson, Alaska. She said it was hard spending the holidays away from her husband and two sons.

"But I did have the opportunity to decorate the chapels," she said. "I put up three Christmas trees, so I'm feeling pretty good right now."

The commander-in-chief stood in the middle of the cheering crowd wearing a brown bomber jacket with a presidential seal. "We are here to say thank you for everything that you do," he told them.

"One year ago I ordered additional troops to serve in this country that was the staging ground for the 9/11 attacks," he continued. "Thanks to your service, we are making important progress. You're protecting your country. You are achieving your objectives."

It's a sensitive moment for the Afghan mission. The White House is two weeks from finishing its annual assessment of what's working and not working in the Afghanistan strategy. Polls consistently show that Americans oppose the war, and American troops are scheduled to begin coming home this summer. The goal is to put Afghans in charge of combat by 2014, but violence and corruption are still huge problems.

The trip was 36 hours in all. It was a long journey for the president, but it's been an even longer journey for those who've been fighting almost 10 years now.

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

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.