Obama Afghan trip reminiscent of spy novel

Arriving in darkness, members of the press and the President Barack Obama's entourage walk from Air Force One to waiting helicopters at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, Tuesday, May 1, 2012.
AP Photo

(CBS News) It was a scene from a spy novel.

A little after 9:30 pm Monday night, I arrived at a back gate of Joint Base Andrews. No guard or intercom, I just drove up and it opened. I was in. The security guards verified my identity and I made my way to the rendezvous point. Typically, this would be the base passenger terminal, but not tonight. Very few people knew what we were doing there, so we met in a dimly lit parking lot.

Our bags were screened and we gave up all our electronics - laptops, mobile phones, cameras, anything that might have tracking software - were put into bins. We would get them back about an hour after takeoff.

On a bus we drove onto the tarmac. Air Force One was in shadow. No lights on, inside or out.

We boarded. Just before midnight, the president arrived. We didn't see him, but more Secret Service agents boarded, the door was closed, and we were off. No lights on in the cabin for takeoff and initial ascent. All window shades down.

In fact, we would not see daylight for more than 24 hours. The plan was to arrive in Afghanistan after dark and leave before daybreak. As we descended steeply to the runway, again, all inside cabin lights were turned off.

We landed at Bagram Airfield at 1020 pm local and got onto Chinook helicopters that were waiting with rotors spinning. The short flight to Kabul was also in blackout - no use of any flashlights or even phones due to their backlit screens. Pilots and gunners used night vision goggles. After landing at ISAF headquarters we took a short motorcade to the Presidential Palace.

In the ornate atrium of the King's Residence, Presidents Obama and Karzai signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement, a document that is intended to shape the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship for the next decade.

We hopped back in the motorcade for the drive back to ISAF and the helicopter lift to Bagram. Again, in blackout conditions.

In a hangar at Bagram Airfield, General John Allen, ISAF commander, gave a rousing warm up talk to about 3,000 servicemembers - most of them Army from the 1st Infantry Division. President Obama spoke to troops, thanking them for their service and making sure they knew that the entire nation is behind them.

"I know it's still tough. I know the battle's not yet over. Some of your buddies are going to get injured and some of your buddies may get killed and there's going to be heartbreak and pain and difficulty ahead. But there's a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices you've made," he said.

He then spent 45 minute shaking hands and taking photos with as many troops as possible. During a visit to the hospital on base here, the president gave out ten purple hearts.

At 4:00 am here - 7:30 pm in the U.S. - the president addressed the nation - that is, he addressed the United States - from Afghanistan. It may well be the first time an "Oval Office Address" has been given from outside the country.

11 minutes later, we ran to the plane to make it out of there before sunrise.

(Written by Richard L. Coolidge, network television pool producer.)


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