Obama makes surprise trip to Afghanistan to sign key pact, mark bin Laden raid

By Kevin Sieff and Scott Wilson

President Obama outlined his plan to end America’s longest foreign war during a visit here Tuesday colored by election-year politics and economic uncertainty, declaring that “this time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end.”

“We have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war,” the president said at a U.S. military base. “In the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”

President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have signed an agreement aimed at cementing a lasting U.S. commitment to Afghanistan after the long and unpopular war comes to an end.

Obama delivered his address at the end of an unannounced visit here to sign a long-term partnership agreement with the Afghan government and to mark, alongside American troops at Bagram air base outside this capital city, the first anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Less than two hours after Obama left the country, insurgents killed at least seven people in a suicide bombing outside a heavily guarded housing compound for foreigners, news services reported. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which led to a prolonged gun battle between insurgents and Afghan soldiers who rushed to the scene, the Associated Press reported.

> Map of Afganistan
Obama’s trip came amid criticism at home that the president is using the anniversary of bin Laden’s death to advance his reelection prospects — featuring his decision to launch the mission in campaign videos and other political settings, for example. As Republican critics have called his leadership abroad weak, Obama has held up the bin Laden operation as evidence that he is willing to make risky decisions to protect U.S. interests.

His arrival here was timed to make the “strategic partnership agreement” official before an important NATO summit this month — and, in the words of one senior administration official traveling with Obama, to take advantage of “a resonant day for both our countries on the anniversary of the death of bin Laden.”

Obama used his time with the troops to emphasize the sacrifices they and their families have made over more than a decade of conflict, saying that in doing so they made the bin Laden mission successful and put the long war on a path to its conclusion.

The hours-long visit was directed almost entirely toward an American audience, unfolding while most Afghans slept. It also served to promote detente after some of the tensest months in U.S.-Afghan relations.

Since February, American service members have inadvertently burned Korans at a U.S. military base, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly murdered 17 civilians in Kandahar province, and at least 18 NATO troops have been killed by their Afghan counterparts. In addition to straining ties and infuriating Afghans, the incidents have contributed to rising war fatigue at home.

Opinion polls show most Americans no longer believe the war is worth fighting. But the strategic agreement and the troop withdrawal schedule allow Obama to say that he has ended the war in Iraq and is winding down the one in Afghanistan, a position even a majority of Republicans favor.

“The Iraq war is over. The number of our troops in harm’s way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon,” Obama said Tuesday. “We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan while delivering justice to al-Qaeda.”

Obama campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to end the Iraq war, which he did in December, and to strengthen the U.S. effort in Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban appeared resurgent and al-Qaeda was active in the regions along the Pakistani border.

With opposition to the Afghanistan war building within his party, Obama announced the beginning of the end of the U.S. mission last year by adopting a withdrawal timeline more rapid than some of his commanders recommended.

The decision drew criticism from some of his GOP rivals, including the presumptive presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, that Obama was calibrating his war strategy to the election calendar. Romney, who on Tuesday gave Obama a share of the credit for bin Laden’s killing, has said the U.S. goal should be to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield.

But Obama on Tuesday laid out a different ambition.

“Our goal is not to build a country in America’s image or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban,” he said. “These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars and many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al-Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that.”

The last of the 33,000 troops Obama dispatched to Afghanistan in 2009 will head home at the end of September. Senior administration officials said Tuesday that, though no specific future troop levels have been determined, a “steady reduction” will follow over the next two years.

Obama’s timeline calls on Afghan security forces to take the lead in combat operations by the end of next year. All U.S. troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2014, except for trainers who will assist Afghan forces and a small contingent of troops with a specific mission to combat al-Qaeda through counterterrorism operations.

In his remarks, Obama emphasized that the United States will not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan, a country that for centuries has fiercely opposed foreign interlopers.

Those U.S. trainers and Special Operations troops that remain beyond 2014 will live on Afghan bases. Senior administration officials said the agreement is meant to send a signal to the Taliban that they cannot “wait out” the international presence, which is supporting a fragile Afghan government.

“The goal I set to defeat al-Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild is now within reach,” Obama said.

Traveling overnight and landing in darkness, Obama arrived at Bagram air base, 35 miles north of Kabul, at 10:20 p.m. local time and boarded a helicopter for a flight into the capital. He arrived at the presidential palace just after 11 p.m. for a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, who has had a contentious relationship with Obama over the years.

“I’m here to affirm the bond between our two countries and to thank Americans and Afghans who have sacrificed so much over these last 10 years,” Obama said. “Neither Americans nor the Afghan people asked for this war, yet for a decade we’ve stood together.”

In signing the agreement after 20 months of difficult negotiations, Obama said that “the Afghan people and the world should know that Afghanistan has a partner in the United States.”

The Washington Post