Afghan President Hamid Karzai declined to meet with President Barack Obama at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, according to a statement from US officials.
Obama arrived at the base on a surprise visit after night fell on Sunday in order to meet with troops in honor of Memorial Day. Officials in Washington were not surprised that the meeting with President Karzai did not work out at such a short notice.
“As we said, we weren’t planning for a bilateral meeting with President Karzai or a trip to the palace, as this trip is focused on thanking our troops,” the official said.
The rep added:
“We did offer him the opportunity to come to Bagram, but we’re not surprised that it didn’t work on short notice. The President will likely be speaking by phone with President Karzai in the days to come, and also looks forward to working with Afghanistan’s next President after the election is complete.”
Air Force One landed at Bagram Air Field, the main US base in Afghanistan, after flying in overnight from Washington DC. Obama was slated to spend just a few hours on the base and had no plans to travel to Kabul, the capital, to meet with President Karzai.
Obama’s surprise visit comes as the US and NATO withdraw the majority of their forces, ahead of a year-end deadline.
Obama looks to keep a small number of US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 in order to train Afghan security forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. But that plan is contingent on President Karzai’s successor signing a bilateral security agreement that President Karzai himself has refused to authorize.
At least 2,181 members of the US military have died during the nearly 13-year Afghan war. Thousands more have been wounded. There are currently approximately 32,800 US troops in Afghanistan, down from the 100,000 deployed in 2010, when President Obama sent in additional soldiers to quell escalating violence.
Obama said he saw a poster of the Twin Towers when he arrived at the briefing building.
“It’s a reminder of why we’re here,” he said.
This was Obama’s fourth visit to Afghanistan, but his first since winning the re-election. Obama declined to visit President Karzai in Kabul in order to avoid injecting his presence into Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential elections.
In addition to the briefing by US commanders in Afghanistan, Obama planned to speak to troops at Bagram and visit the injured being treated at a base hospital.
Presidents Obama and Karzai have had a strained relationship, and the U.S. has been deeply frustrated by the outgoing Afghan leader’s refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement.