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Obama makes surprise visit to Afghanistan

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No need for fresh sanctions on Iran: Obama
No need for fresh sanctions on Iran: Obama

President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday as his administration plans to end the nation’s longest war at the end of this year, and faces intense criticism over the medical treatment of American veterans.

“I’m here on a single mission, and that is to thank you for your extraordinary service,” Obama told a rally of some of the 32,800 American servicemembers serving in Afghanistan, many of them making their last tour of duty.

Obama also announced that he will decide soon on possible troop levels for a post-2014 residual force to be left in Afghanistan to keep training local security forces and conduct counterterrorism missions.

In discussing this “limited military presence,” Obama told U.S. troops at Bagram Air Field that, “after all the sacrifices we’ve made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win.”

The residual force — perhaps up to 10,000 troops — may be a topic when Obama delivers a foreign policy speech Wednesday during a commencement address at West Point.

Obama said, “I want everybody to know, in this country and across the region: America’s commitment to the people of Afghanistan will endure.”

After making a secret overnight flight from Washington, D.C., Obama also told the troops that the United States is at “a pivotal moment,” and that Afghan forces will complete their takeover of security responsibilities by the end of this year.

“Our combat mission will be over,” the president said. “America’s war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.”

In addition to his speech and an on-site briefing from military commanders at Bagram Air Field, Obama also visited wounded troops at the base hospital.

Obama spent a little less than four hours on the ground in Afghanistan.

Country music star Brad Paisley traveled with the president and performed for troops at Bagram.

The Memorial Day weekend visit comes as Obama plans to wind down the Afghanistan war by year’s end. During his security briefing, Obama said he would make an announcement “fairly shortly” about residual troop levels.

In his speech to the troops, Obama said that while “everybody knows Afghanistan is still a very dangerous place,” there has been progress that ranges from expanded economic development in the country to education for girls who had once been denied it.

Obama also said the U.S. has “decimated” the leadership of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization that plotted the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, including the death of leader Osama bin Laden.

“Even with all the challenges, more Afghans have hope for their future,” Obama said to the troops. “And so much of that is because of you.”

The surprise trip also follows attacks over the treatment of veterans at Veterans Affairs hospitals, including reports that officials are trying to cover up evidence of long wait times and that some veterans have died while awaiting treatment.

In his weekend radio address, Obama said “we’ve seen again how much more our nation has to do to make sure all our veterans get the care they deserve,” and the nation has a “sacred obligation” to follow through.

During his speech at Bagram, Obama said that “we’re going to stay strong by taking care of our wounded warriors and our veterans.”

Obama did not meet Sunday with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, with whom he has had a difficult relationship. Afghanistan is in the midst of a run-off election to replace Karzai.

A U.S.-led coalition first invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, a month after the 9/11 attacks; Afghanistan had served as a safe harbor for the 9/11 plotters. In recent years, U.S. troops have battled insurgents seeking to regain control of the country, though Obama said the country is no longer a “safe haven” for terrorists.

This was Obama’s fourth visit to Afghanistan, his first since the 2012 re-election year.

About 32,800 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. At least 2,181 U.S. military servicemembers have died during the Afghanistan War, and thousands more have been wounded.

In his remarks to troops, Obama noted that during his tour of Bagram he saw a picture of the twin towers of the World Trade Center that were attacked in 2001. “So I know you don’t forget,” Obama said.

The plan to maintain a small force in Afghanistan depends on Karzai’s soon-to-be-elected successor signing a bilateral security agreement that Karzai has refused to endorse.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said Obama had been looking for an opportunity to get back to Afghanistan, and this trip provided “an opportunity for the president to thank American troops and civilians for their service.”

Rhodes said the administration is “making some decisions about the future of our commitment to Afghanistan,” and the briefings with give Obama a chance to assess the security and political situation as Afghanistan holds new elections.

“It is important for him to come before he articulates a decision” about a residual force, Rhodes said.

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