Obama makes surprise trip to Afghanistan

President Obama made a brief, unannounced visit Friday to Afghanistan. But in a scenario that seemed symbolic of star-crossed U.S. relations with the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the two leaders were unable to meet face to face.

The U.S. president visited American troops at Bagram airfield, a sprawling base north of Kabul. But a massive dust storm prevented him from making the short helicopter trip to meet with Karzai at his presidential palace in the capital, as the two men had planned.

Obama instead reportedly held a videoconference meeting with his Afghan counterpart.

Already tense relations with Karzai have been worsened in recent days by leaked U.S. diplomatic cables portraying the Afghan leader as a weak and paranoid figure at the helm of a government riddled by corruption.

While the broad outlines of this diplomatic depiction came as little surprise, the timing was awkward, coming only days before the White House is expected to complete a major review of the state of the nearly decade-old U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

This has been the war’s most lethal year for U.S. forces, and Obama faces intense political pressure to justify the long and costly conflict — a task made more difficult by his own envoy’s scathing assessment of Karzai. American criticism of the Afghan president has been widely reported, but the damning details in the leaked documents laid bare a relationship beset by mutual mistrust.

At the presidential palace in Kabul, the red carpet was literally rolled up as it became clear that weather conditions would prevent Obama’s visit. Hamid Elmi, the deputy spokesman for Karzai, confirmed that it had been hoped Obama would come to Kabul but conceded flatly: “That will not be happening.”

Obama’s previous trip to Afghanistan, a little over eight months ago, was a similarly speedy fly-in, but one that left lingering feelings of acrimony on both sides. Karzai’s inner circle deeply resented blunt criticisms leveled on the press plane by James L. Jones, the national security advisor, and the White House, for its part, concluded that the Afghan administration did not take seriously enough concerns over graft and corruption.

An aide said Obama had not been carrying any “major new piece” of news Friday to deliver to Karzai. The two men met before Thanksgiving on the sidelines of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Lisbon.

Even the release of diplomatic cables in recent days did not occasion the need for a detailed conversation between the two leaders. The Obama administration has “weathered those kinds of revelations before as it relates to President Karzai and the Afghan government,” said the aide, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes.

Though Obama missed an opportunity Friday to try to establish some sort of personal chemistry with the increasingly distant and mercurial Afghan leader, his three-hour stay gave him an opportunity to meet with U.S. troops, a holiday season morale boost amid a long slog of war.

The two top U.S. officials in Afghanistan — Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of Western forces in the country, and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry — were on hand to greet the president.

In his speech to troops, delivered in a drafty aircraft hangar, Obama seemingly sought to balance the optimism expressed of late by his field commanders with a somber acknowledgement that Western forces face a resilient and resourceful foe.

“We said we were going to break the Taliban’s momentum; that’s what we’re doing,” the president, clad in a leather jacket and dark sweater and slacks, told the assembled troops, who cheered raucously as he listed their branches of service. But he added: “I don’t need to tell you this is a tough fight.... Progress comes at a high price.”

American commanders have pointed to significant success in recent months in driving Taliban fighters out of districts surrounding Kandahar city, the hub of the south and the Taliban’s spiritual base. But it remains to be seen how durable that progress will prove to be. Senior Western commanders have acknowledged that insurgents are likely to regroup in the spring after a winter break in Pakistan.

Most of the troops present at Obama’s speech were with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, which is on its fourth combat deployment in recent years to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

In the moments before the president spoke, his hosts broadcast a security reminder — ominous to the visitors, but a daily fact of life for those stationed in Afghanistan.

“If we get indirect fire while this ceremony is going on,” the announcement went, “stay put. Do not go anywhere. If you have to do something, get down. Do not move out of this building.”

Times staff writers King and Parsons reported from Dubai and Washington, respectively, and special correspondent Yaqoubi from Kabul.