President Obama made a secret trip to Afghanistan Tuesday, the first anniversary of the raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden – and a day after Mr. Obama said there would be no “excessive celebration” of the Al Qaeda leader’s demise.
Obama flew to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and then by helicopter to the presidential palace in Kabul, where he signed an agreement with President Hamid Karzai setting the course for US-Afghan relations once all American combat troops leave the country by the end of 2014.
After signing the Strategic Partnership Agreement shortly after midnight Kabul time, Obama told Mr. Karzai the new agreement was a testament to the partnership the two countries have forged in facing a common enemy.
"Neither Americans nor the Afghan people asked for this war, yet for a decade we've stood together," Obama said. "Today ... we look forward to a future of peace," he added, "Today we're agreeing to be long-term partners."
The president was set to deliver a national address to the American people at 7:30 pm EDT.
The Strategic Partnership Agreement sets the stage for a US military presence in Afghanistan well into the future, with an as-yet unspecified number of US troops remaining in Afghanistan to support the Afghan security forces and carry out counterterrorist operations.
Some former foreign-policy officials and Afghanistan policy analysts have said for months that Obama needed to explain his Afghanistan policy and the rationale for a long-term US role in that country to the American people. The president is expected to make that case in his televised address, although White House officials said the remarks would be relatively short.
Even so, the speech is unlikely to calm suspicions about the timing of the Afghanistan trip.
By choosing the anniversary of the spectacular yet risky raid he ordered to get bin Laden, the president is turning an opportunity to explain a critical foreign-policy commitment to the American public into a presidential campaign event touting his leadership, some critics say.
White House officials said Obama was expected to mention the bin Laden raid in his short address to Americans, as well as in remarks he is to deliver to soldiers at Bagram Air Base. But they said the timing of the president’s trip had more to do with Obama’s desire to sign the agreement in Afghanistan, and to have the document signed before the NATO summit in Chicago later this month.
NATO countries have agreed to end their combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and will discuss in Chicago the Alliance’s future role there. NATO members will be asked to help fund the Afghan security forces and to continue some level of training missions.
Obama is expected to use his speech to tell Americans that his strategy for winding down the Afghanistan war is working, resulting in a weakened Taliban and a decimated Al Qaeda leadership.
With polls showing a strong majority of Americans opposing the US military engagement in Afghanistan, Obama is likely to remind Americans that the 35,000 “surge” troops he ordered into Afghanistan in 2009 will have been drawn down by the end of this summer – leaving behind Afghan security forces better able to defend their country against a weakened insurgency.
That will still leave about 65,000 US troops in Afghanistan – a number that could remain stable until after the November election.