KABUL - Under elaborate secrecy, President Barack Obama slipped into Afghanistan yesterday near the front lines of the increasingly bloody 8-year-old war he is expanding and affirmed America's commitment to destroying al-Qaida and its extremist allies in the land where the 9/11 plot was hatched.
Obama's six-hour visit was conducted entirely under the shroud of nightfall, after Air Force One's unannounced flight from the United States.
His bid to shore up faith in the struggle was aimed both at the troops who cheered him and Americans back home. And he demanded accountability from Afghan authorities to make good on repeated promises to improve living conditions, rein in corruption and enforce the rule of law to prevent people from joining the insurgency.
Speaking to troops at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul, in a cavernous tent known as the "clam shell," Obama said, "We know there's going to be some difficult days ahead, there's going to be setbacks. We face a determined enemy, but we also know this: the United States of America does not quit once it starts on something. We will prevail, I am absolutely confident of that."
"Your services are absolutely necessary, absolutely essential to America's safety and security," the president told a lively crowd of about 2,500 troops and civilians. "Those folks back home are relying on you. We can't forget why we're here."
It was Obama's first trip as president to Afghanistan, where the number of U.S. troops killed has doubled in the first three months of 2010, compared with the same period last year, as tens of thousands of additional soldiers have been sent to reverse the Taliban's momentum.
"I thought I'd come over and say hello," Obama told the troops in a jaunty remark that set the stage for stark reminders of the terrorist threat that rose from this soil.
"If this region slides backwards," he said, "if the Taliban retakes this country, al-Qaida can operate with impunity, then more American lives will be at stake, the Afghan people will lose their opportunity for progress and prosperity and the world will be significantly less secure. As long as I'm your commander in chief, I'm not going to let that happen."
That resolve was meant just as surely for stateside citizens as for those who heard it face to face. Polls find that Americans are divided on the war if, more recently, favorable to Obama's handling of it.
Obama had changed into an Air Force One uniform to address the troops. His dark suit was soiled with dust when he stepped off his helicopter at the presidential palace in Kabul.
Obama, in private talks, told President Hamid Karzai and his cabinet they must do more to battle corruption and cronyism, officials said. Karzai was invited to visit Washington on May 12.