BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — In a rousing holiday-season visit, President Obama on Friday told cheering U.S. troops in Afghanistan that they're succeeding in their vital mission fighting terrorism. But after he flew in secrecy for 14 hours to get here, foul weather kept him from nearby Kabul and a meeting to address frayed relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The trip came at a particularly awkward moment in already strained U.S. relations with Afghanistan because of leaked cables alleging widespread fraud and underscoring deep American concerns about Karzai.
There was no mention of that as the president spoke to more than 3,500 service members packed into a huge airplane hangar. After his remarks, he spent more than 10 minutes shaking hands, going around the hangar three times as they grabbed his hand and held cameras and cell phones high to take photos.
Obama stayed on this U.S. military base, the headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division, the entire time he was here, just under four hours. He huddled with U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. And he visited wounded soldiers at a base hospital, personally dispensing five Purple Hearts to wounded service members.
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He thanked the troops for their efforts, noting the difficulty in being away from home during the holidays, and they repeatedly cheered him in return.
He said the U.S. was continuing "to forge a partnership with the Afghan people for the long term." And he said, "we will never let this country serve as a safe haven for terrorists who would attack the United States of America again. That will never happen."
There are about 150,000 coalition forces in Afghanistan, roughly 100,000 of them Americans. The U.S. and its NATO partners agreed last month in Lisbon, Portugal, to begin turning over control to local Afghan authorities in 2011, with a goal of completing that transition by the end of 2014.