* Obama says troops on the offensive, making progress
* Karzai meeting replaced by phone call because of weather
* Visit to focus on troops, not fact-finding for review (Adds details from Obama-Karzai call, paragraph 17)
By Caren Bohan
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, Dec 3 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama, paying a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Friday, praised U.S. troops for their sacrifice and “important progress” in a nine-year war that is increasingly unpopular at home.
He spent four hours at an airbase outside the Afghan capital and canceled a planned helicopter trip to Kabul to meet Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai because of bad weather. Instead, the two leaders spoke by telephone.
Obama’s second visit to Afghanistan as president came as the White House prepared to release a review of the war’s strategy in the week of Dec. 13, and the day after leaked cables detailed U.S. concerns about Karzai’s abilities and widespread fraud in the country.
Neither topic came up during their 15-minute phone conversation, Obama Afghan war adviser Douglas Lute told reporters aboard Air Force One as the president flew home.
The U.S. president is under pressure to show progress in a war that many are wearying of after nearly a decade, and told nearly 4,000 troops gathered in a hangar to hear him that they were gaining ground against insurgents.
“Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control,” Obama said, in a speech filled with tributes to serving troops and the burden carried by their families.
“We said we were going to break the Taliban’s momentum and that’s what you’re doing, you’re going on the offense, tired of playing defense,” he said to the crowd of mostly U.S. troops.
But the trip comes at a time of spiraling violence and record casualties. Over 1,400 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, and a third of them lost their lives in the past year alone.
Obama decided in 2009 to ramp up force levels to widen the Afghan military campaign, and many of the extra troops have been thrown into tough fighting, including a major offensive in the southern Taliban heartland of Kandahar.
White House officials emphasized the main purpose of Obama’s journey was a visit with the troops around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, rather than a fact-finding mission before the upcoming strategic review.
“I know it’s not easy for all of you to be away from home especially during the holidays and I know it’s hard on your families, they have got an empty seat at the dinner table,” Obama told the crowd, after visiting wounded soldiers.
He awarded five Purple Heart medals in the Bagram hospital.
Jimmy Settle, 33, a paramedic and rescue specialist shot two weeks ago during a rescue mission said Obama’s speech and visit were motivating and his recognition of the pain of being separated from families near the holidays “hit home.”
As usual with such trips, Obama’s visit was not announced previously for security reasons. He was spirited out of the White House secretly on Thursday night and flew overnight aboard Air Force One for the surprise trip to Afghanistan.
Not everyone was thrilled to see Obama. One Air Force captain, who did not want to give his name, said he would have preferred extra sleep to a late evening presidential visit and disagreed with plans to start moving foreign troops out by 2011.
Obama has set a mid-2011 target to start the withdrawal, and U.S. and NATO officials say they aim to complete the handover to Afghan forces by 2014, a goal set by Karzai.
“They both acknowledged that early 2011 is not far off and that this has to remain a priority for both of them, to begin the transition process,” Lute told reporters.
Obama’s Republican critics have criticized the July 2011 timeline, saying that announcing a date emboldens the Taliban.
In addition to talking to Karzai, Obama got briefings from key advisers, including General David Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and special forces commanders.
While Obama had planned to meet Karzai, he had no new message to deliver since the two had met recently at the NATO summit in Lisbon, White House aides said.
U.S. officials have said they believed NATO forces were making progress in training Afghan security forces, who will take control of security as foreign troops begin to leave.
The December review will assess and potentially recommend changes to the strategy Obama rolled out a year ago when he ordered 30,000 additional U.S. troops to the war zone, although his team says there will be no major shifts.
“This is a process which is diagnostic in nature. This is not a policy review similar to the one that was undertaken last year. We have a strategy in place,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for communications, told reporters on Air Force One before the visit to Afghanistan.
“We’ll assess that strategy and review the need for any adjustments, but these adjustments, again, won’t be of the nature of a policy overhaul.” (Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Louise Ireland and Peter Cooney)