Obama makes late-night trip to honor slain soldiers
President Barack Obama flew to a U.S. military base on Wednesday night to meet the plane bringing home the bodies of 18 American soldiers and Drug Enforcement Administration agents killed in Afghanistan this week, Reuters reported.
The previously unannounced late-night trip comes as Obama weighs whether to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight an insurgency that has reached its fiercest level in eight years. This month has been the deadliest for U.S. forces since the start of the war eight years ago.
Obama took off from the south lawn of the White House in his Marine One presidential helicopter shortly before midnight (0400 GMT on Thursday) and was headed to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, home of the United States' largest military mortuary and main point of entry for U.S. service members killed abroad.
It will be the first time as president he has made the trip to Dover, where as the caskets are unloaded from the transport plane, he will see first hand the human cost of the unpopular war he inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush, and which analysts say will likely help define his presidency.
Obama traveled with only a small media pool to Dover, and journalists accompanying him were restricted from reporting on the trip until his helicopter had taken off from the White House.
Polls show Americans increasingly weary of the war and there is skepticism, including among Obama's fellow Democrats who control the U.S. Congress, over sending more troops.
The bodies due to arrive in Dover early on Thursday were those of eight Army soldiers killed by a roadside bomb and seven soldiers and three DEA agents killed in a helicopter crash, the military said.
Obama has held a series of meetings with his war Cabinet to review the new Afghan strategy he put in place in March and to consider a request by his top military commander in the field, General Stanley McChrystal, for 40,000 more troops to combat a resurgent Taliban.
He is set to meet again on Friday with Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of the military services, the White House said.
Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said on Tuesday the decision-making process was "probably getting to the end" and a final decision could be expected in the coming weeks.
Critics, particularly among opposition Republicans, accuse Obama of being overly cautious and indecisive, but the White House has said a decision of such magnitude requires careful consideration.
The process has been complicated by an Afghan presidential election in August marred by widespread fraud in favor of incumbent president Hamid Karzai. A second round is due to be held on Nov. 7.
Underlining the fragility of the security situation even in the capital, Kabul, Taliban militants stormed a guest-house in Kabul on Wednesday and killed five U.N. foreign staff.
About two-thirds of the 100,000 NATO-led forces are U.S. troops. More than 900 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon relaxed its ban on media coverage of returning U.S. war dead by allowing families to decide whether to allow photos and television footage of the flag-draped coffins of their loved ones.
The ban had been imposed since the days of the 1991 Gulf War with some exceptions, including the return of Navy seamen killed during the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000.
Bush imposed a stricter ban during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, sparking criticism the federal government was hiding the human cost of its military operations.