Path for peace has been set, Obama tells Afghans
President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, second from right, sign a strategic partnership agreement Tuesday at the presidential palace in Kabul.
President Barack Obama greets troops during a visit to Bagram Air Field on Tuesday in Afghanistan.
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KABUL, Afghanistan -- President Barack 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 from a U.S. military base. "In the predawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon."
Mr. Obama delivered his address at the end of an unannounced visit to Kabul to sign a long-term partnership agreement with the Afghan government and to mark, alongside U.S. troops at Bagram air base outside this capital city, the one-year anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The trip came amid criticism at home that Mr. Obama is using the raid to advance his re-election prospects by featuring his decision to launch the mission in campaign videos and other political settings. As Republican critics have called his leadership abroad weak, Mr. Obama has held up the bin Laden operation as evidence that he is willing to make risky decisions to protect U.S. interests.
His Afghan arrival 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 the president, to take advantage of "a resonant day for both our countries on the anniversary of the death of bin Laden."
Mr. 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 as a detente after some of the tensest months in U.S.-Afghan relations.
Since February, U.S. service members have inadvertently burned Qurans at a U.S. military base, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly murdered 17 civilians in Kandahar, and at least 18 NATO troops have been killed by their Afghan counterparts. In addition to infuriating Afghans, the incidents have contributed to rising war fatigue at home.
The strategic accord and the troop withdrawal schedule allow Mr. Obama to say 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," Mr. Obama said Tuesday. "We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan while delivering justice to al-Qaida."
Mr. 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-Qaida was active in the border regions with Pakistan. With opposition to the Afghan war building within his party, Mr. 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 Mr. Obama was calibrating his war strategy to the election calendar. Mr. Romney, who on Tuesday gave Mr. 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 Mr. 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-Qaida, and we are on a path to do exactly that."
The last of the 33,000 troops Mr. Obama dispatched to Afghanistan in 2009 will head home at the end of September. Senior administration officials said Tuesday that, while no specific future troop levels have been determined, a "steady reduction" will follow over the next two years.
Mr. Obama's timeline calls on Afghan security forces to take the lead in combat operations by next year's end. All U.S. troops are to leave by the end of 2014, except for trainers who will aid Afghan forces and a small troop contingent specifically to combat al-Qaida by counterterror missions.
In his remarks, Mr. Obama emphasized that the United States will not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan, which for centuries has fiercely opposed foreign interlopers. Those U.S. trainers and Special Operations troops that remain beyond 2014 would live on Afghan bases.
Senior administration officials said the agreement is meant to send a signal that the Taliban cannot "wait out" the international presence, which is supporting a fragile Afghan government.
"The goal I set to defeat al-Qaida and deny it a chance to rebuild is now within reach," Mr. Obama said.
President Hamid Karzai, who over the years has had a contentious relationship with Mr. Obama, has long requested reassurance that U.S. support would not wane after 2014. The pact commits the president to ask Congress for money to support Afghanistan through 2024, but it does not set a specific amount of annual aid.
It is designed to promote the training of Afghan forces, a reconciliation and reintegration process for Taliban fighters who leave the battlefield, and regional stability with a focus on improving relations with Pakistan.
In speaking with troops after the signing ceremony, Mr. Obama sounded notes of praise and hope: "I know the battle is not yet over; some of your buddies are going to get injured, some of your buddies may get killed. And there's going to be heartbreak and pain ahead," he said. "But there is a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices you made."
Americans have not outlined what the U.S. troop presence will look like beyond 2014, and NATO has yet to specify its long-term financial commitment to the Afghan security forces. That topic will be a focal point of the NATO summit in Chicago this month.
First Published May 2, 2012 5:32 am