Obama Wants At Least A Small Troop Presence In Afghanistan

May 26, 2014
Originally published on May 26, 2014 6:23 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Let's hear what it sounds like to make a whirlwind visit to Afghanistan.

GREENE: President Obama dropped in on Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul. He listened to military commanders.

INSKEEP: He met with hospital caregivers.

GREENE: And he hosted a late-night rally.

INSKEEP: If all goes as planned, this should be the last Memorial Day in what has become America's longest war. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Air Force One touched down at Bagram Air Field after dark on Sunday following a secret overnight flight from Washington. Obama got an on-site briefing from his top military commanders and the U.S. ambassador here, then stepped into a cavernous hangar where 3,000 service members in camouflage uniforms were waiting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello, Bagram.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: Well, you know, I know it's a little late, but I was in the neighborhood - thought I'd stop by.

HORSLEY: Some 32,000 Americans are currently serving in Afghanistan, a war the president is determined to wind down by year's end. This weekend's visit was a chance for the commander-in-chief to say thanks to those troops in person.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: But I'm also here representing 300 million Americans who want to say thank you as well.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: I know sometimes when you're over here away from home, away from family, you may not truly absorb how much the folks back home are thinking about you. So I just want you to know, when it comes to supporting you and your families, the American people stand united.

HORSLEY: Obama also visited caregivers at a Bagram base hospital. The show of support for people in uniform comes as the president is trying to tamp down criticism back home over the treatment of veterans seeking care at VA hospitals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: Helping our wounded warriors and veterans heal isn't just a promise, it's a sacred obligation.

HORSLEY: This is Obama's fourth visit to Afghanistan as president and his first since 2012. Since that time, U.S. troop levels here have been cut by about two-thirds. Obama now faces the decision over whether to leave any U.S. forces in the country beyond 2014. He made it clear he'd like to leave a small troop presence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: Because after all the sacrifices we made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win, and we're going to make sure that Afghanistan can never again, ever be used again to launch an attack against our country.

HORSLEY: Obama told commanders he expects to announce a decision on future troop levels fairly soon. That announcement could come as early as Wednesday when Obama's set to deliver the commencement address at West Point. But aides say this visit was not a time for serious policy pronouncements, the atmosphere was more like a pep rally. Country music star, Brad Paisley, who accompanied Obama on Air Force One helped provide the entertainment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUTHERN COMFORT ZONE")

BRAD PAISLEY: (Singing) And I've been away way too long, I can't see this world unless I go outside my southern comfort zone.

HORSLEY: Despite the celebratory mood here today, Afghanistan remains a dangerous place. After 13 years of war, too dangerous for an American president to stick around for the sunrise. Obama's plane took off from Bagram the same way it landed - with windows covered, in the dark. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.