US President Barack Obama meets with troops at Bagram Air Base, December 3, 2010. [Photo/Agencies]
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan - US President Barack Obama, paying a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Friday, praised US troops for their sacrifice and "important progress" in a nine-year war that is increasingly unpopular at home.
He spent four hours at an airbase outside the Afghan capital and canceled a planned helicopter trip to Kabul to meet Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai because of bad weather. Instead, the two leaders spoke by telephone.
Obama's second visit to Afghanistan as president came as the White House prepared to release a review of the war's strategy in the week of December 13, and the day after leaked cables detailed US concerns about Karzai's abilities and widespread fraud in the country.
Neither topic came up during their 15-minute phone conversation, Obama Afghan war adviser Douglas Lute told reporters aboard Air Force One as the president flew home.
The US president is under pressure to show progress in a war that many are wearying of after nearly a decade, and told nearly 4,000 troops gathered in a hangar to hear him that they were gaining ground against insurgents.
"Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control," Obama said, in a speech filled with tributes to serving troops and the burden carried by their families.
"We said we were going to break the Taliban's momentum and that's what you're doing, you're going on the offense, tired of playing defense," he said to the crowd of mostly US troops.
But the trip comes at a time of spiraling violence and record casualties. Over 1,400 US troops have died in Afghanistan since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, and a third of them lost their lives in the past year alone.
Obama decided in 2009 to ramp up force levels to widen the Afghan military campaign, and many of the extra troops have been thrown into tough fighting, including a major offensive in the southern Taliban heartland of Kandahar.
White House officials emphasized the main purpose of Obama's journey was a visit with the troops around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, rather than a fact-finding mission before the upcoming strategic review.
"I know it's not easy for all of you to be away from home especially during the holidays and I know it's hard on your families, they have got an empty seat at the dinner table," Obama told the crowd, after visiting wounded soldiers.