Obama secretly flies to Kabul to sign a partnership deal with Karzai and give a nationally televised speech. How did he keep the trip under wraps?
President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan Tuesday, in a globe-spanning trip that was shrouded in secrecy, and which coincides with the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death. After landing, Obama met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign an agreement outlining the prolonged cooperation between the two countries, even after the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014. Obama is also set to make a televised address to Americans at 7:30 p.m. EST. Here’s what you should know about Obama’s Afghanistan trip:
Why exactly is he there?
Obama isn’t just a commander-in-chief, says Ben Feller of theAssociated Press. He’s also “an incumbent president in the the early stages of a tough re-election campaign.” Obama will officially launch his re-election bid on Saturday, and this trip is a shrewd reminder to voters that since taking office, Obama has ended the war in Iraq and strategized an orderly finish to U.S. combat in Afghanistan, too. Timing the visit to the one-year anniversary of the daring Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden can also be read as a political move, especially after his campaign used the raid to attack GOP rival Mitt Romney. Of course, the president is also in Afghanistan to sign the Strategic Partnership Agreement.
What is this agreement?
The deal is “designed to send a strong message” that, though the U.S. is reducing its footprint in Afghanistan, it is not abandoning the region, says ABC News. And while the deal is “more symbolic than substantive,” says Mark Landler at The New York Times, it nonetheless marks a crucial transition in America’s thorny relationship with “a staunch, if faraway and complicated, ally.” And remember, says Feller, that the agreement, while light on details, allows the U.S. to potentially keep troops in Afghanistan to train Afghan forces and target al Qaeda.
How did the White House keep this visit a secret?
As is routine for presidential trips to war zones, a sparse team of White House officials and select members of the press corps were instructed to keep the visit a “closely guarded secret,” says Zeke Miller at BuzzFeed. The group boarded Air Force One very early Tuesday morning, landing at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Field at 10:20 p.m. local time. “Flying under the cover of darkness,” saysABC News, Obama boarded a waiting helicopter and flew the 40 minutes to Kabul to meet with Karzai. After signing the agreement, he flew back to Bagram, where he will make his speech to Americans. It will be 4 a.m. in Afghanistan when the president speaks.
Did anybody find out about the trip in advance?
“Almost everyone in the U.S. media knew about this six hours” before the White House gave official word, says Dylan Byers at Politico. A local Afghan news organization called TOLONews tweeted that Obama landed in Afghanistan at 9:19 a.m. EST, and several Western media outlets picked up the news, including The Huffington Post and New York Post. The White House quickly scrambled to squash the reports, frantic “to keep word of Obama’s trip out of the press until he was out of harm’s way,” says Miller. Officials began issuing stern denials, demanding that all related posts and tweets be taken down.
Did media outlets oblige?
For the most part, and to a “remarkable degree,” says Byers. The Post was among the last news outlets to take its post down, though the newspaper leaked a self-congratulatory statement from its editor in chief: “With due respect to the White House and out of an abundance of caution, the Post removed the story from its website. We are impressed the White House believes the Taliban, while hiding in caves and dodging American drones, are, like millions of others, avid readers of nypost.com.”