KABUL (Reuters) - Any trip by a U.S. president requires careful planning, but sneaking him into Afghanistan — a country in the midst of an eight-year war with Islamic militants — is a special case.
Under the cover of darkness, President Barack Obama made his first visit to Kabul on Sunday since taking office nearly 15 months ago, finally putting his foot in a nation that, at least in the foreign policy arena, has the potential to define his presidency.
For security reasons, the trip was cloaked in secrecy. He arrived at night and left while it was still dark.
Reporters were barred from telling anyone where they were going on Saturday evening as they made their way to Andrews Air Force Base, where the presidential aircraft is housed.
Upon arrival, staff and members of the media were bussed to the hangar where a gleaming Air Force One awaited.
Normally the aircraft is positioned outside for the president’s arrival. But that night it stayed under cover, taxiing out in darkness once Obama was on board to avoid alerting uninvolved military members at the base of its departure.
Obama himself snuck into Andrews.
After leaving the White House on Friday afternoon with the “cover” of spending the weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat, he flew from there by helicopter to the base on Saturday night to make the secret trip.
The president, a Democrat, had been expected to come to Kabul for some time since his inauguration in January 2009. White House officials said weather and logistical reasons thwarted previous attempts to make the trip.
Then, just over a week ago, they found a window.
Obama cancelled his visit to Indonesia and Australia so he could stay in Washington while the House of Representatives voted on, and ultimately approved, his signature domestic policy priority, healthcare reform.
That created time — not to mention political space — to visit the country that will, by the end of this year, host nearly 100,000 U.S. troops, a majority of whom will have come to Afghanistan under Obama’s watch.
The more than 12-hour flight to Afghanistan passed quickly. Most people slept for the first part of the trip. Imagine wearing sweatshirts and jeans in what would be considered business class roominess on one of the most famous planes in the world to snooze in your seat. White House national security staff briefed reporters in a conference room. Window shades remained closed throughout the flight.
Around 7:30 p.m. local time, Air Force One landed at Bagram airfield, smoothly and without incident, in darkness.
Obama exited the aircraft, shook hands with the waiting greeters, and proceeded to a helicopter to fly to President Hamid Karzai’s palace in the city.
The 14 reporters accompanying the president and some staff flew on a separate military helicopter, sweeping over Kabul with wind blowing through the open back end. A gunner stood at the window, scanning the dark landscape during flight.
After landing, the reporters waited for word from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs that they could announce to the world that Obama was in Afghanistan. The journalists got their cell phones and blackberries back on the president’s plane after surrendering them beforehand at Andrews.
The secret had been kept.
Once word was out, Obama met Karzai in the palace’s outdoor grounds and stood under a pavilion for a brief welcoming ceremony.
The leaders then went inside and reporters proceeded to a lush, open hall-like room with pillars and a low, enclosed pool of water with floating flower petals.
The front of the hall appeared to be set up for a news conference, and local reporters, who had not been told initially who was coming, were summoned to the palace for the event.
But the presidents apparently did not want to address a full media throng. White House reporters were ushered out of the grand hall, leaving Afghan journalists behind, and proceeded to another room where Obama and Karzai sat. The two leaders then made brief statements there.
After meeting with Karzai’s cabinet, Obama and his entourage boarded helicopters and returned to Bagram. The lights of Kabul dotted the landscape. Obama had told Karzai the prevalence of electricity in the city was a sign of its progress.
At the airfield Obama addressed a respectful and at times enthusiastic crowd of U.S. troops and civilians, drawing cheers upon entering the stage but seeming to lose some by the end of his roughly 20-minute remarks. He did not use a TelePrompTer.
Later the president shook hands with troops at the mess hall, looking energetic and comfortable in a bomber jacket. Shortly thereafter he boarded Air Force One, which, under less secrecy but still in darkness, departed for Britain to refuel before heading back to Washington.
The president had spent roughly six hours in the country.
Editing by Philip Barbara