President Obama makes surprise visit to Afghanistan

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

After a secret overnight trip from Washington, D.C., Obama received an on-site briefing from military commanders at Bagram Air Field, visited wounded soldiers at the base hospital, and prepared to address a rally of some of the some 32,800 American service members currently serving in Afghanistan.

Country music star Brad Paisley traveled with the president, and performed for troops at Bagram. As the presidential party landed, Paisley tweeted: "About to play a surprise concert for the troops in Afghanistan. God bless our military. Here we go."

The Memorial Day weekend visit comes as Obama plans to wind down the Afghanistan war by year's end, though the some officials do want to leave a small residual force in the country for training purposes.

The surprise presidential trip also follows attacks over the treatment of veterans at VA 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.

"Now that we've ended the war in Iraq, and as our war in Afghanistan ends as well, we have to work even harder as a nation to make sure all our veterans get the benefits and opportunities they've earned," Obama said. "They've done their duty, and they ask nothing more than that this country does ours -- now and for decades to come."

The president is not scheduled to meet Sunday with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, with whom the president has had a difficult relationship. Afghanistan is currently in the midst of a run-off election to replace Karzai.

Air Force One landed at Bagram Air Field on Sunday night, local time, after a secret overnight trip that began Saturday night in Washington, D.C.

A U.S.-led coalition first invaded Afghanistan in October of 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.

This is Obama's fourth visit to Afghanistan, his first since the re-election year on 2012.

Some 32,800 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, down from a high of 100,000 in mid-2010. At least 2,181 U.S. military service members have died during the Afghan war, and thousands more have been wounded.

While the U.S. and allies are pulling troops out of Afghanistan this year, the Obama administration is seeking to keep a small residual force in the country to train local security forces and conduct counter-terrorism missions.

That plan 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 undergoes new elections.

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

Contributing: The Associated Press


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