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In Afghanistan, Obama Thanks Troops for Sacrifice

President Obama addresses troops at Bagram Air base in Afghanistan, December 3, 2010. CBS

President Obama thanked members of the military on behalf of the American people during a speech at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan Friday, telling the troops, "As we begin this holiday season, there's no place I'd rather be than be here with you."

"I know it is not easy for all of you to be away from home, especially during the holidays," the president said. "I know it's hard on your families. They have got an empty seat at the dinner table. Sometimes during the holiday season, that's when you feel the absence of somebody you love most acutely."

The president flew to Afghanistan overnight in a surprise tripthat the White House said was focused primarily on thanking service-members fighting the more than nine-year-old conflict. The visit, which comes in the midst of a worsening jobs picture and a fight over extending the Bush tax cuts at home, was planned one month ago.

The president spent about three hours at Bagram. In addition to giving the speech, he met with top military commanders, awarded five Purple Hearts during a visit to a hospital on base, and spoke via videoconference with Afghan Leader Hamid Karzai. A planned face-to-face meeting between the two in Kabul was canceled because of bad weather.

US commander in Afghanistan General David Petraeus (R) introduces US President Barack Obama as he arrives to address troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan December 3, 2010 during a surprise visit for the holidays AP

"I'm not here to give a long speech - I want to shake as many hands as I can," Mr. Obama told cheering troops after being introduced by Gen. David Petreaus, the top commander in Afghanistan. Petreaus hailed the president for his approachability and for making the "tough decision" to give the military the resources it needs to succeed in Afghanistan.

The president told the troops that while there may be political divisions within America, there is at least one thing left and right agree on: Their "uniform support" for "the men and women of the finest fighting force that the world has ever known."

"Everybody back home is behind you," he said. "Everybody."

"Your generation, the generation of Afghanistan and Iraq, has met every mission that you have been given," he said. "You have served tour after tour. You've earned not just our admiration. You've earned your place in American history alongside those greatest generations."

The president also gave thanks to the families of those serving, telling the troops, "They're serving here with you, in mind and spirit if not in body."

The president said the assembled troops, largely from the 101st Airborne Division, "are part of an unbroken line of Americans who have given up your comfort, your ease, your convenience for America's security."

"The freedom, the liberty that we treasure, that's not simply a birthright," he said. "It has to be earned by the sacrifices of generations; generations of patriots, men and women who step forward and say, send me."

"In our time, in this 21st century when so many other institutions seem to be shirking their responsibilities, you have embraced your responsibilities," he added. "You have shown why the United States military remains the most trusted institution in America."

One year ago, Mr. Obama tripled the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan as compared to when he took office, bringing the total number of troops up to roughly 100,000. Despite some successes, there have been a number of setbacks since then; 467 American troops have been killed so far in Afghanistan this year, the highest number since the war began. The White House has its eye on 2014 as a possible date to end combat operations and next summer as the beginning of the wind-down period.

President Barack Obama is greeted by NATO Commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus, left, and US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Elkenberry, after stepping off Air Force One during an unannounced visit to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Friday, Dec. 3, 2010. AP

"We will never let this country serve as a safe haven for terrorists who would attack the United States of America again," he said.

The president argued America is "making important progress" and said the troops are succeeding in efforts "to break the Taliban's momentum."

Still, he acknowledged, "there are going to be difficult days ahead."

"Progress comes at a high price," he said. Thoughts turn to the families of the fallen particularly during the holidays, Mr. Obama added. He told the story of Medal of Honor winner Salvatore Giunta, to whom he awarded a Medal of Honor last month, noting that Giunta insisted that if he's a hero, so is every other man and woman in the military is as well.

"Sal is right, every single one of you is a hero," he said. "Some people ask whether America's best days lie ahead or whether our greatness stretches back behind us in the stories of those who have gone before. When I look out at all of you, I know the answer to that. You give me hope. You give me inspiration."

Mr. Obama's high-security visit was his second as commander-in-chief. It comes amid a review of the conflict that is not expected to result in a change in the U.S. strategy.

It also follows the release of secret diplomatic cables that described out-of-control corruption and bribery in Afghanistan.

The leaks, from the group WikiLeaks, described the country as "a looking-glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest official is a distinct outlier," as the New York Times reported Friday.

Mr. Obama last visited Afghanistan in March, at which time he pressed Karzai on corruption in his administration. The two men met face-to-face less than two weeks ago at a NATO summit in Lisbon. Karzai has complained angrily in recent weeks about U.S. military tactics, specifically special operations raids designed to root out insurgents, amid heightened tensions between his administration and its U.S. counterpart.

In the WikiLeaks cables, Karzai was described as an "erratic" leader who was "indecisive and unprepared" and a less-than-reliable partner.

A rock band from the division played songs by Metallica, Blink 182, Oasis and other groups before the president spoke. Troops also sang a portion of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Mr. Obama shook hands with troops following the conclusion of his remarks, after which he was set to board Air Force One for the flight back to Washington. 

Brian Montopoli is senior political reporter for You can read more of his posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.