US president pays surprise visit to Afghanistan

Updated: 2014-05-26 09:51


US president pays surprise visit to Afghanistan

US President Barack Obama speaks to US troops deployed in Afghanistan during an unannounced visit to Bagram Air Base in Kabul, May 25, 2014. [Photo/Agencies]

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan - US President Barack Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan on Sunday to visit US forces who are wrapping up a 13-year mission and signaled that he intends to keep a small number of troops in the country for training and counter-terrorism operations.

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Cheers erupted among the hundreds of US troops gathered in a Bagram hangar when Obama said that at the end of this year, "America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end."

With Afghanistan immersed in a runoff election to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, Obama did not meet Afghan government officials nor travel to the capital Kabul. Karzai has long been out of favor with Washington over his refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement to allow US troops to stay beyond 2014.

Obama's fourth visit to Afghanistan came as he faces criticism at home over a foreign policy often derided as too passive in dealing with crises from Syria to Ukraine and Russia. He is to respond to those criticisms in a speech on Wednesday at the US Military Academy at West Point.

Obama administration officials briefed on the matter said last month that the number of US troops in Afghanistan may drop well below 10,000 beyond 2014, the minimum demanded by the US military to train Afghan forces.

The decision to consider a small force, possibly less than 5,000 US troops, reflects a belief among White House officials that Afghan security forces have evolved into a robust enough force to contain a still-potent Taliban-led insurgency, the officials said.

There are now about 33,000 US troops in Afghanistan, down from 100,000 in 2011, when troop numbers peaked a decade into a conflict originally intended to deny al-Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.

The two leading candidates in Afghanistan's presidential race, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have both pledged to sign the security agreement as soon as possible, should they be elected in the second round of voting scheduled for June 14.

The new president may not start work until August, as logistical constraints and widespread fraud could mean it will take the country's electoral commission weeks to determine the outcome of the vote.

Obama called Karzai from his plane after leaving Bagram, saying he wanted to conclude a bilateral security agreement with the next president. He also told Karzai he would inform him of his decision on post-2014 troop levels before making it public, a senior administration official told reporters on the plane.

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