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President Obama's Surprise Trip To Afghanistan; New Details On The Gunman In The Shooting Rampage In California

Aired May 25, 2014 - 13:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Candy Crowley in Washington.

Our breaking news this afternoon, a surprise trip by the president to Afghanistan to visit troops this Memorial Day weekend. We are standing by for him to speak at any moment.

With me now, CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, Michelle Kosinski at the White House, Jim Sciutto is in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.

Barbara, first to you. It is impossible, I think, to sort of tell people what this kind of trip actually can mean to folks that have been out there, some on very long tours, it's kind of a, hey, you're important, we know you're here, we care visit.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Candy. We care and you are not forgotten. That's really the sweet talk to troops over the last 13 years all the time. They just want to know that they are not forgotten and their families here at home want to know that they are not forgotten.

This action by the president, if we can just set politics, Washington politics aside for a moment, the need to -- for the troops, for their families to hear that the president cares, that the country cares, really cannot be underestimated. Just in Afghanistan alone, some 2,000 troops killed in that war, 2,000 families this Memorial Day weekend still in mourning for their loved ones, some 20,000 U.S. troops wounded over the years, that doesn't even begin to count the sacrifices that were made in Iraq and other places around the world.

So, this is a super big deal. It's saying that we care. And on this Memorial Day, also just taking a moment to remember, there is a military family in the United States with a very difficult challenge, the family of army soldier Bowe Bergdahl. He has been gone since July 2009, taken by the Taliban and now said to be held by those affiliated with the Taliban across the border in Pakistan. There have been a couple of videos of him, but his family also this Memorial Day very much wanting to get Bowe Bergdahl back home.

This is a time for the country on Memorial Day to always pause and remember and reflect on the sacrifices that the families and the troops make.

CROWLEY: Makes them feel a little bit less alone if they know the issue in their lives is still important to the country and certainly to the president of the United States.

Jim Sciutto in Kiev today, where they have having an election.

Jim, I want to take advantage of your knowledge of the wars in Afghanistan and Iran and say, it does seem to me that the president under fire for what critics say was botching Syria, was not being tough enough on Putin when it came to Ukraine and for, in fact, losing Crimea. Here's a chance for the president to say, remember this war I would said I would end? I'm ending it.


I think, you know, principally, as Michelle said, this trip is about Memorial Day, honoring the soldiers, but it cannot be disconnected from the many other foreign policy crises that are defining his second term and even in surprising places, such as here in Europe. Who would have thought in Europe, a crisis between east and west, U.S. and Russia would be dominating his foreign policy agenda.

At the same time as he has tried to extract himself from those two long wars, first in Iraq, now in Afghanistan, winding down. And avoid, in fact, involvement or greater involvement in the other war that is tearing up the Middle East, Syria.

And this is why I think the administration feels the need now at this west point speech on Wednesday to define to the American people and the world what are the connections between all these policies? Is it isolationist? Is it just more conservative in terms of where the U.S. will intervene and why all right U.S. intervene? By following what standard? Is it, you know, is the issues that are going on now here in the Ukraine, for instance, does that have a direct national security interest in the U.S.? The U.S. has been moving forces around here, pursuing economic sanctions. How important is it? How does it all tie together?

Even his own advisers admitting in recent days that Americans don't know the answer to that question. They see the trees, they don't see the forest. It will be up to the president now to given an answer to that question, starting with the speech at west point.

And if I can, Candy, just since we are here in Kiev and following an election where polls have just closed at 8:00 p.m. local time, we have the first results from election polls -- from exit polls, I should say as you know, exit polls are not the final word, but they dough give an indication, and we are hearing that the leading candidate, known as the chocolate king, has achieved, based on his exit polls, more than 50 percent of the vote with his closest challenger, Julia Tymoshenko, a 12 percent of the vote.

If those results hold, that would mean there would be no runoff and you would have now a leader chosen by the country of Ukraine to lead it into the next phase. The exit polls showing, at least at this stage, a first-round winner of Ukraine's presidential election.

CROWLEY: And Jim, it remains to be seen whether that actually stabilizes Ukraine or not. I want to bring in Michelle Kosinski.

Michelle, I think the speech by the president at west point does sort of give a continuum of here is this visit and to west point, kind of outline his foreign policy. Tell us what you know about this speech.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right. I mean, and this is one of those instances where he can talk about what has been accomplished. I think that this administration goes back to Afghanistan and what has occurred there, that these wars were going before Obama took office, that he was able to end them and bring folks home.

So, as other controversies swirl around here at home, this is one place President Obama handles foreign policy. This is one place where he can thank troops as this trip has been posed as the goal. But also, Ben Rhodes with the national security council said that we are going to be hearing more from President Obama in coming days about the U.S.' position in Afghanistan and also foreign policy in general. So really feels like this is a time for him to go there and, you know, on the occasion of Memorial Day, support the troops, show that he is there in person with their concerns in mind.

And it's been interesting. I was at Bagram about a year and a half ago, while U.S. troops were training Afghan troops to take over. And so many of them, I think what really stood out was their dedication to the mission of doing that, trying day to day. And we were watching some of that training going on. And on that particular day, when we were spending a lot of time there, they were having a sort of graduation ceremony for the Afghan troops, but a lot of U.S. trainers there were shaking their heads and feeling like they really were not ready to take over, that some of them couldn't even write their own language or add and subtract.

And they were concerned about the difficulties of that handover. So, they are pretty candid about, you know what they agree with and what they don't agree with, but their dedication was clear and we know that the president today is going to be thanking them, expressing his deep gratitude as well as visiting some in the hospital and awarding some of them for their bravery and service there, Candy.

CROWLEY: Thanks so much, Michelle. And hang with us a little bit here because I want to bring in Nick Paton Walsh.

Nick, I so often have spoken to you while you were in Afghanistan. So I know you know it quite well, as do some of our other reporters.

So the president's trip there does seem to me to maybe be the period he wants, to say here's another campaign promise that is nearly complete. How do you view this trip?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Very possibly so I mean, the delay put into this whole process of signing the BSA, the agreement that would allow American troops to stay in Afghanistan after NATO pulls out toward the end of 2014, that has perhaps given the White House the opportunity to focus public opinion on the potential for the zero option of no one being left at all.

Now, we are quite likely going to see Afghani or Abdul Abdullah, those are the two people in the runoff for June 14th fighting for the presidency, they are both pretty clear. They will sign that agreement very quickly indeed, unless something major changes their opinions there the window is open for the White House to keep troops there and thousands necessarily want. But as you suggested, that window for them taking everybody out may be increasingly wide.

Remember, actually, the last visit there, May 2012, he slipped in at night, made leaks from the afghans that he was coming, it wasn't much to of a secret, went to see President Karzai but that relationship, to be honest, not particularly good. There is not even bothering to go to see him today at all, Karzai, in the last weeks of his presidency certainly.

At that previous visit two years ago, they signed an agreement about future U.S. Afghan, military and economic cooperation. It was a key day but the relationship soured so significantly since then. I think today certainly, we will hear more about the timing, the fact that June 14th is both the date of the Afghan presidential runoff and also a meeting at NATO to talk about the Afghan policy and future commitments. That's certainly key, too.

And you have to ask what kind of future presence does the U.S. potentially want in Afghanistan? I mean, talking about potentially 10,000 to provide adequate security for trainers to stick around and assist the Afghan mission there. But the situation there has deteriorated so extraordinarily since I was there in May 2012. And we heard bombers, helicopters passing over the house that we lived in.

It's now much harder for westerners to walk around in public inside Kabul. There had been a number of journalists shot there simple play on the street. Talking to friends, residents living there now, very hard in some areas that used to be free to move in to feel safe a lot of the time. That's partly due to the deterioration of Afghan security forces, the sense that NATO and foreigners are leaving, that that umbrella of secure silt dissipating. And I think, too many -- the old saying used to be the Americans have the expensive watch but it's the time that's on the Taliban's side. And they were wait willing for this moment potentially to move back in and around Kabul, reestablish their presence.

There is that whiff in the air potentially of change some say from there and the big challenge for the presidential victor finally in this runoff is to keep security adequate for the vote to happen and the convincing fashion. Remember the last big presidential election was an extraordinary mess, allegations of fraud, a runoff and eventually, Abdul Abdullah now standing, deciding to pull back from the race. They need legitimacy for that president to have a chance of keeping the country together and of course what is left of international aid to keep flooding into Afghanistan. They badly need that money, because the Afghan state government's budget is pretty much, I hate to say it almost entirely but quite substantially funded by foreign governments. It's a country enormously in crisis but it is a great opportunity for Barack Obama to turn up on this day, Memorial Day ahead of us, thank the troops for their service some many Americans, I'm sure, not actually cognizant of the scale still of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

It's gone on so long now, the U.S.'s longest foreign war, by far. So many casualties, so many wounded still at home in the U.S. receiving treatment. Such a key war that Barack Obama came to power saying he would fight, considering the just, the good war pushing through with that commitment. You saw the surge, we sought unfortunate departure of Stan McChrystal for inopportune comments to "Rolling Stone" magazine about U.S. officials, that put the campaign back substantially. After his arrival may 2012, after a bad month period for the U.S. campaign there Barack Obama really coming into I think a military that felt disenheartened (ph) after so many errors the past few weeks -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Nick Paton Walsh and Jim Sciutto, who are both in Ukraine for us on a different story, but giving context to this one, the president's arrival in Afghanistan. We are awaiting his remarks, which we expect some time in this hour.

Right now, Brad Paisley, he is entertaining the troops. We also have with us Michelle Kosinski at the White House. We have Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. All this knowledge about what's going on.

We will be back right after a break.


CROWLEY: The president's trip to Afghanistan, he has surprised the troops and us, as a matter of fact. He left at -- late at night Saturday night, east coast time. He landed, also in the dark. Bagram air base is where he is. The guy singing on the left is Brad Paisley, a country music star. So they seem to like him. And we haven't seen the president. We are expecting him to talk somewhere between one and two, but look who I have, sitting here waiting.

So, when you look at this and the optics, let's all agree, great for the troops. You always -- these are the ones in harm's way right now. These are the troops in most harm's watch good for him for going there and doing that. But not -- it is an opportune time for him to be there.

COREY DADE, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, THE ROOT: The best possible time for him right now. You know, he is -- the U.S. voters, they are fatigued, they are sort of war fatigued, they are not so much on board with U.S. continuing sort of more, aggressive, assertive, interventionist type of foreign policy.

So now, he is ready to pivot. He has to pivot beyond ending this second war and he has to articulate a new vision for the next two years on foreign policy but also, let's be honest, his treatment -- his administration's treatment of veterans are really on the line here. And he waited three weeks before he weighed in on the veterans administration scandal and, you know, he is still treating it like if these allegations are true, that is what he is saying. When reality, he knows, most the allegations were irrefutable. He was on the veterans committee as a senator. He campaigned in both of his campaigns in making veterans priority. So, he has a lot of work to do.

CROWLEY: So, is it a good time for him to try to pivot.


CROWLEY: I mean, these allegations are not going away. Look, it's Memorial Day. People are focused on the sacrifice ongoing, and those who gave, you know, the ultimate and then he is going to quickly be at west point to talk about foreign policy going forward. So it's a good time for him to try, but it doesn't solve the problem.

PENNY LEE, VENN STRATEGIES: Nor would you expect it to solve the problem just by going on a trip to Afghanistan. He has to, when he has to come back to it continue to address these concerns and these need and to be able to hold leaders that are accountable and be able to have that system in place to be able to take care of those that did cook the books, those that were -- did egregious things.

But we also have to look and Congress needs to take responsibility here, too, for ten years, they have been given these reports that there is a waiting list that there is health care that is not being able to be provided because you -- they cannot get to the services that they need. They have rural issues in rural areas, So Congress also needs to be held responsible for this.

So, it is not just one person, one time, the last three weeks. This has been an ongoing problem. We must take the VA, look at it in whole and possibly change the model.

CROWLEY: Can they spread the blame?

O'CONNELL: Yes. I think they are going to. And let's be honest, not to be callous on Memorial Day, but the president's response took him three weeks and it was pretty much lacking and pathetic, on the VA scandal.

No, it really was. But remember, this is going on and he has known about this in what I think everybody thought he was going to do was come up with at least an outline for a plan of action. He has no plan of action. I don't care if this has been going on for 25 years.

LEE: You mind somebody taking time to look at the facts and to be able to determine what the facts.

O'CONNELL: I understand, but remember, Penny, this is sort of a modus operandi with the president, whether it is AP, IRS, Benghazi, those are partisan issues.

LEE: He took it into the --

(CROSSTALK) CROWLEY: Penny, is there not a time, because we have heard Democrats complain is there not a time when no drama Obama, which looked like such a great, you know, like, wow, it is deliberative, think it through, is there time for little drama, right? Some outrage.

LEE: He expressed that outrage. He did stand up there in front of the cameras and something needs to be done and we need to look at it. But he also not going to be irresponsible and he is not going to -- he is not going to fly at the state of past (ph) and just because a story came out, run to the microphone and say -- he is going to make how can you say he didn't know about this?

O'CONNELL: Look, he doesn't --


O'CONNELL: This is part of the Obama scandal manual. I didn't know that. I learned about it on CNN. Next thing you know, I'm going to express outrage then I'm going to fire some low-level staffer. And then I'm going to say we need more studies. And then after six months, I'm going to tell you the problem solved, whether or not it solved, and if it isn't solve, I'm going to blame on the Republicans for being partisan.

LEE: No. The Republicans are going to continue to try to keep ginning to their faux scandals that they have.

O'CONNELL: It is not about the faux scandals. But my whole point, though, is you can say the other three or four were Republicans reaching out but you have opened the eyes of the mainstream media to sort of the way the president operate.

LEE: The issue is the (INAUDIBLE)

CROWLEY: I do think there's bipartisan outrage. This much is true. But is there bipartisan dissatisfaction with the way this has been handled by the White House?

DADE: Not so much. I think Democrats are slowly but surely sort of moving toward being more, aggressive in asking for Shinseki's resignation. But I think they are willing to sort of ride with the president a little bit to see how the president responds. I think that's where they are right now. I think the president knows that he is on a short leash with his democratic base on this. He has got to take action that's decisive.

CROWLEY: And is there anything short of here's a big move, which is not in the president's nature, it's not in the president's nature to let go of people and honestly, there's a lot of question as to whether --

DADE: And certainly not when --

CROWLEY: Has wrestled this bureaucracy to a standstill at some levels, employment among vets is down, homelessness among vets is down. We are told that the backlog at the VA applying for benefits has been cut in half. And so, is that enough, do you think, to have the president look elsewhere to take decisive action?

LEE: I think some people are going to have to be let go and there is going to have to be management, Phoenix, some of the other VA hospitals, accountability and you will probably see, depending on what the rules reasoned at regulations, unfortunately, the bureaucracy of the civil service. So you have take a look at those things.

But I think short of that, people are going to be disappointed. There has to be some proposal that either Congress can act on or at the local level to be able to address this.

CROWLEY: I promise I will give you next up. But I got to take a quick break and we are going to move back to the other story we have been covering all this morning and last night.

Right now, what you're looking at, again, Brad Paisley, who has been entertaining the troops some time now, famous country western singer, obviously, they are loving it. So what a great way to spend a Memorial Day, if you have to be in Bagram air base in Afghanistan.

So, we will be back. We want to return to California and take a look at the other big story today.


CROWLEY: Two big breaking stories today, one of them is happening right there. That's Afghanistan. That's Brad Paisley. He is a country western singer, entertaining the troops at Bagram air base. The president brought him there. We are expecting the president to speak to the troops. This was a surprise visit, at least to us. So, we are following that and will, in fact, be carrying the president's remarks.

But right now, I want to turn to our other big story, that is California. A tragedy in the wee hours of Saturday morning when a gunman who was also armed with a knife, went on a killing rampage, basically, killing six people, sending more than a dozen to the hospital.

I want to bring in our correspondent, Pam Brown. Because Pam, I know that you have some sources talking to you about the family of the young man who went on a rampage, who then apparently killed himself, shot himself is in the head after a car crash. What can you tell us about them?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Candy. I have been speaking with a close family friend by the name of Simon Astaire. And he gave us unique insight into Elliott Rodger and the moments right before the rampage. And in fact, he told us, Candy, that as Elliot Rodger was carrying out the shootings spree, his parents were frantically trying to find him after having just received that chilling manifesto. Apparently, Rodger had sent that manifesto, the 140 pages, to around a couple dozen people. And laid out his frustrations with his height, with his parents' divorce and hinted that he was seeking retribution. And apparently, his mother received that manifesto at 9:17 p.m., Pacific Time, and went to his You Tube page and that's where she saw that retribution video, where he talked about going to the sorority house and slaughtering the women there. Apparently, according to this family friend, the mom called the father, alerted him to the manifesto, alerted him to that You Tube video and the mother called 911.

And we have learned, Candy, from this friend, that they immediately tried to get a-hold of Elliott, tried to find him. They were on their way to Santa Barbara from L.A., a couple hours awake as they were on their way there they heard there was a shooting and later to find out their worst nightmare came true, that the person behind that shooting was their 22-year-old son -- Candy.

CROWLEY: You know, that is a special and I think probably really lonely kind of heartbreak for a parent, to find out that your child has done so much damage. We do know that someone was concerned enough about this man to call police in late April, I believe, and the police went out and did what they call a welfare check like, you know, can you just go see what is going on with this person? What do we know about that?

BROWN: Yes, that's right. These welfare checks are fairly common. What happened, according to this family friend is that the mother was concerned, she hadn't heard from Elliott in a few days, couldn't reach him. She went -- she looked up his name on Google and went to You Tube and found these videos that he had posted on there. And she grew increasingly concern sod she called the therapist, apparently his therapist. The therapist called this mental health hotline in Santa Barbara. And that person, the person who answered the hotline, called police and said you need to check on this young man. So apparently, police, around six or seven officers showed up at Elliott's house and the sheriff said there was nothing alarming, that he seemed shy and timid and that he talked about issues with his social life, but there was nothing to indicate that he was a danger to himself or others. And so, they didn't take him in for the involuntary mental health check.

But we learned, Candy, in that manifesto that at that point, he was planning the rampage and that he was worried the officers knew about his plan and they are going to foil it. He called it a close call. So disturbing. And obviously as you pointed out, as his parents who is going through a very difficult right now understanding what their son did.

CROWLEY: Pamela Brown out there in California for us, just an awful story, everywhere you look.

When we come back, we will talk about President Obama's surprise trip to Afghanistan with a former U.S. ambassador to that country.


CROWLEY: That's the president of the United States. This is actually some tape we got, you will recognize air force one. You will recognize the president. That gentleman is the ambassador to Afghanistan. And that is the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, because the president is in Afghanistan. He went there on a surprise trip. He will address the troops on this Memorial Day weekend. He brought along with him Brad Paisley. And I have been corrected by all the music aficionados out there, Brad Paisley is a country star, not a country western star.

Anyway, he is enter taken the troops. So, we will -- we are awaiting the president. And as we do we want to go to Michelle Kosinski. She is our White House correspondent. And I understand you have news about this trip, Michelle?

KOSINSKI: Yes. We are getting guidance from the National Security Council, what this trip is about, how it came to be and what this really means in terms of U.S. foreign policy moving forward.

So, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes gave a sort of briefing on the way to Afghanistan and said that this trip has actually been planned months, that they were really looking for a good and peaceful window of time to get in there. Now is a good time, since the election was successful and is over. But we know that we have this runoff election coming up. It has been going on.

And he said that the president really didn't want to meet with any of those candidates in the runoff. He also didn't want to meet with outgoing president Karzai, just because he didn't want to get in the middle of politics, he didn't want to be seen as influencing anything that is election is continuing. Of course, politics in Afghanistan are also important to some extent for U.S. policy because of that bilateral security agreement that would sort of shape what the U.S. presence will be in Afghanistan moving forward.

And Ben Rhodes was asked on this briefing, pre-landing in Afghanistan, well, what is this going to look like exactly? Can you put a sort of fence around what the troop numbers are going to be once the selection is complete? It draws down and the transition is over. It is going to be something like 5,000, 10,000 U.S. troops?

He said the president and the team have been meeting on this issue recently. They are going to be meeting again. The president is going to be making decisions in the near future. So, it wouldn't really give any specifics. But said that the president thought it was important to be in Afghanistan and meet with these troops face to face before that happened.

We know the president going to give a couple of addresses, too, in coming weeks about U.S. foreign policy. And that will include the questions of what exactly is the U.S. role in the world. And I think maybe more importantly to what we have been seeing recently as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan, how do you strike that balance between taking a lead in the world and overextending ourselves -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Michelle, thanks.

So I want to go to the White House with Michelle's information to Barbara Starr and ask you, Barbara, because we have heard this now, that obviously, the next big U.S. move in Afghanistan is out and the big question is how many stay there so it doesn't become Iraq? And a lot of us depends on the military, but there is also a political side to this, is there an internal argument now about the number of troops that might say, assuming Afghanistan goes along with it?

STARR: Well, I mean, the general thinking, what you hear is it somewhere between three to ten, maybe 12,000, but raise a really interesting point, Candy, what does it mean to get out of Afghanistan? If the president wants to make that one of the hallmarks, what does that really mean because any U.S. military commander, any U.S. soldier, will tell you in any of these decisions, the enemy gets a vote.

If U.S. troops pack up and go home, if it's 3,000, if it is 10,000, does anybody really think at this point, that the Taliban that Al Qaeda, is going to pack up and go home? I think the answer would be no. Just look at Iraq the last several months, violence escalating there considerably, Al Qaeda affiliates back in Iraq, car bombs, suicide bombs, pretty free open access across that border into Syria where Al Qaeda is also on the rise.

The big concern in Afghanistan back in this war zone, the Afghan/Pakistan border, Al Qaeda, decimated, yes. But still, plenty of punch, plenty of ability to carry out attacks and that is going to be the key. If these Al Qaeda groups front rise in the region, they don't need, not necessarily looking to go do, god forbid, another 9/11, they stage these attacks in Afghanistan. They make it just unstable enough, just insecure enough that they can operate in there and that becomes a real threat. That is something the U.S. will find very difficult to deal with, Candy.

CROWLEY: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us.

One of our entourage of folks who know an awful lot about the world and the subject in it. Right now, our subject is Afghanistan. What will happen to keep it from becoming Iraq once U.S. troop leave there, of course, we are talking about this, because the president has flown to Afghanistan to say hey to the troops and we are expecting a speech from him. We think shortly but you never know about these kinds of things. That's Brad Paisley. He's country star and he is entertaining the troops.

We will be back after this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama!




OBAMA: Well, you know, I know it's a little late, but I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd stop by.


OBAMA: First of all, I want everybody to give a huge round of applause to your commander, General Joe Dunford. Please give him an outstanding, rousing, acknowledgment. I am grateful to him for his leadership of our coalition here in Afghanistan and for his lifetime of distinguished service to the Marine Corps and to America.

And can everybody please give it up to Brad Paisley?


OBAMA: Now, I want to say this about Brad. First of all, he is a great supporter of our troops, a great supporter of your families. Two years ago, we had him at the White House to perform for troops and military families during the Fourth of July celebration. Him, coming here today was not easy. He had just started a tour. And he had to juggle a lot of stuff and had to try to figure out how to explain it to people without explaining it to people. And his wife and two young sons and promoters are and agents and without going into the details, this was a big sacrifice for him. And he did it because he cares so deeply about you. So, I'm so grateful to him. I want to make clear though, I will not be singing. So -- oh, you really want me to sing, huh? No. No. No. No.

No. But I do want to just say to Brad, thank you so much for doing this.

I want to acknowledge our outstanding ambassador, Jim Cunningham was here, with his lovely wife. And Jim leads an incredible team of civilians. And our embassy and across this country, they are also making sacrifices, also away from their families, oftentimes, themselves at risk as they serve.

I know those of you in uniform couldn't do your jobs without these Americans as your partners so we salute the dedicated service of all the civilians who are here, led by Jim Cunningham. Give them a big round of applause.


OBAMA: Now, I guess I also should mention that we got a few folks here as part of the 10th mountain division. Clyde McGlory. We got the 455th air wing in the house.


OBAMA: The task force mule skinners.


OBAMA: Task force thunder. Task force rugged.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes! OBAMA: To all of you, I'm here on a single mission and that is to thank you for your extraordinary service. I thank you as our -- as your commander in chief because you inspire me. Your willingness to serve, to step forward at a time of war and say "send me" is the reason the United States stays strong and free.

Of all the honors that I have as serving as president, nothing matches serving as your commander in chief. But I'm also here representing 300 million Americans who want to say thank you as well.

And I know sometimes, when you're over here, away from home, away from family, you may not truly absorb how much the folks back home are thinking about you. But I just want you to know when it comes to supporting and you your families, the American people stand united.

We support you. We are proud of you. We stand in all of your service. And you can see it in American actions every single day. You see it in the kids across America who send you all of those care packages and all of those Girl Scout cookies. Those were pretty popular? You like those cookies?

All right. I'll bet you get some more now. You see it in the neighbors, and the co-workers who volunteer to help your moms and dads and wives and husbands and sons and daughters, at school on and on their sports teams. You see it in the airports when you return stateside, all of the folks standing up applauding, ling up to shake your hand and welcoming you home. You see it when entire stadiums get to their feet to salute our troops and our veterans.

Just the other day I welcomed the super bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and -- listen, I'm a Bears' fan but I -- but the one thing that I saw and I've seen it with every sports team that comes to the White House is, the work that they do, visiting Walter Reed, Bethesda, doing work with military families. In fact, to help announce their draft picks this month, the Seattle Seahawks selected Jeff Baker who is a Seahawks' fan but also a veteran of Iraq in Afghanistan and a proud sergeant in the U.S. army to make that draft pick because they want to make a signal that we love our sports, our football. That is fun and games but this is the competition that counts. And these are the real heroes.

You see America's gratitude every time I present a veteran of Afghanistan with our nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor. We bestow that medal on an individual. But every time, every time that we bestow that medal, whoever is the recipient says he accept it is on behalf of the whole team and everybody who wears the uniform of the American armed forces. And when those citations are read, Americans all across the country stops and they listens and they are stirred by the sacrifice that you render for each other and all of us.

So I'm here to say thank you and I'm here to say how proud I am of you. And I'm here to say how proud I am of your families because in some ways, in ways large and small, they are sacrificing just like you are. But I'm also here because after a decade of war, we're at a pivotal moment. You know, last year marked a major milestone. For the first time, Afghan forces took the lead to secure their own country. And today you're in a support role, helping to train and assist afghan forces.

For many of you, this will be your last tour in Afghanistan. And by the end of this year, the transition will be complete and Afghans will take full responsibility for their security and our combat mission will be over. America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.


OBAMA: Now, that progress is because of you and the more than half a million Americans, military and civilian, who served here in Afghanistan. And I don't want you to ever forget why you are here or how vital your mission is to our national security.

Some of you may know recently I was in New York City and we were there to dedicate the new 9/11 museum. And I had time to spend with the survivors and with families who loved lost ones and with the first responders who would rush to the scene and had a chance to ponder the portraits and the biographies of the thousands who were killed that day and to think about those that were killed in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.

And once again, we resolve to never forget what happened on that September day and to do everything in our power to prevent something like that from ever happening again. That's why you are here. That's why you are here. And I notice some of you don't remember because as I was getting a briefing while Brad was singing, I saw a picture of the twin towers and the operation room nearby. So I know you don't forget.

And four years ago on my first visit to Bagram as president, I laid out our mission. And General Dunford and Ambassador Cunningham just gave me a briefing on your progress. And today, every single one of you, everybody who has served here and all the members of our coalition can be proud because you are completing our mission. You are completing the mission.

We said that we were going to deny Al Qaeda safe haven. And, since then, we have decimated the Al Qaeda's leadership in the tribal region and our troops here played a role in the counterterrorism operations, including the one that delivered justice to Osama bin Laden.


OBAMA: So, along with our intelligence personnel, you've helped prevent attacks and save American lives back home. Al Qaeda is on its heels in this part of the world and that's because of you. We said that we were going to reverse the Taliban's momentum. And so you went on the offensive driving the Taliban out of its strongholds.

But everybody knows Afghanistan is still a very dangerous place. Insurgents still launch cowardly attacks against innocent civilians. But just look at the progress that you've made possible. Afghans reclaiming their communities and more girls returning to school. Dramatic improvements in life expectancy and literacy. That's your legacy. That's what you did. Even with all of the challenges, more Afghans have hope for their future and so much of that is because of you.

We said we were going to strengthen the capacity of Afghan forces so they could take more responsibility for their security. So you've been training Afghan forces and building Afghan forces up. And we know they still have a long way to go but for nearly a year Afghans have been in the lead and they are making enormous sacrifices.

You look at the casualties that they are taking on. They are willing to fight. Afghan forces are growing stronger. Afghans are proud to be defending their own country and that, again, so much of it is because of you.

Think about last month's election dispute all the threats from the Taliban, the Afghan people refused to be terrorized. They registered to vote. Afghan security forces secured thousands of polling places. Millions of Afghans were lined up to cast their ballot and next month's runoff will be another step toward the first democratic transfer of power in the history of this nation. That's a tribute to the courage and people of Afghanistan, but it's also a tribute to you and the sacrifices of so many Americans and our coalition partners, everything that you've done over the years.

Now, we know that this progress is coming at a heavy price. Tomorrow is Memorial Day. The bases here in Afghanistan and towns across America, we will pause. We will pay tribute to all those who have laid down their lives for our freedom. And that includes nearly 2200 American patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice, the last full measure of devotion right here in Afghanistan.

I know you've stood in front of those battle crosses. I know many of you carry the memories of your fallen comrades in your heart today. We will honor every single one of them, not just tomorrow but forever. And I want you to know our gratitude is shared by the Afghan people.

One of them -- one of Afghanistan's leading women, a member of parliament, recently wrote an open letter and I don't know if many of you had a chance to see it. She described all of the changes that have taken place here, including the millions of girls going to school and pursing their dreams. I want to you listen to this. She wrote "it's been a difficult journey marked by blood and violence, but we have made significant gains and achievements which would not have been possible without the generous support of the international community, especially the American people."

She's talking about all of you. She is talking about your families. She is talking about those who we have lost. That's the difference and the legacy that you can be proud of.