One year after Osama bin Laden death, Obama's balancing act still tricky

President Obama's speech shows little has changed in Afghanistan despite the Osama bin Laden death. Obama is still in the position of assuaging a war-weary public at home while sticking with plans for a 2014 end to the war – with some US support continuing long after that. 

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama gets a high five as he greets troops at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Wednesday.

Acknowledging Americans’ weariness with war, President Obama announced an agreement with Afghanistan that both marks the beginning of the end of the 10-year war in that country and commits the United States to 10 more years of support for Afghanistan after the US troop withdrawal is complete in 2014. 

The president traveled secretly to Afghanistan on Tuesday to sign the new Strategic Partnership Agreement with President Hamid Karzai and address US troops at Bagram Air Base. The trip also coincided with the first anniversary of the US raid in Pakistan that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, exposing Mr. Obama to charges he was seeking to dramatize the anniversary for political effect.

In an address to the nation Tuesday evening, the president sought to assuage concerns across the political spectrum.

“We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize. Otherwise, our gains could be lost, and Al Qaeda could establish itself once more. And as Commander-in-Chief, I refuse to let that happen,” Obama said, speaking from Bagram Air Base.

“I recognize that many Americans are tired of war,” Obama continued. “As president, nothing is more wrenching than signing a letter to a family of the fallen, or looking in the eyes of a child who will grow up without a mother or father. I will not keep Americans in harm’s way a single day longer than is absolutely required for our national security. But we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan and end this war responsibly.”

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll on US opinion toward the Afghan war, released in mid-April, showed support for the war at an all-time low, with only 30 percent of Americans saying it has been worth fighting. And for the first time, a majority of Republicans said the war had not been worth fighting.

Obama has faced opposition from his political left, which argues for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, faces an even tougher challenge with public opinion, as he supports staying in Afghanistan until the Taliban has been defeated. The Islamist group ruled Afghanistan until the US-led war overthrew it in 2001, though it is still an insurgent force in the country.

Senior administration officials, speaking to reporters on background on a conference call, defended Obama against the idea that he planned the trip on the bin Laden anniversary for maximum political effect.

“This was a unique opportunity to achieve a core objective of our policy in Afghanistan – to sign this agreement, to do it on Afghan soil, to visit with our troops, and again, to do so as we mark a point in time that helped put Al Qaeda on a path to defeat and, again, helps open a door to a better future for both Afghanistan and the United States,” said one official on the call.

The official said that the Strategic Partnership Agreement had been under negotiation for the past 20 months, and only completed in recent weeks. Both presidents, he said, had set a goal of completing the agreement in time for the NATO summit in Chicago later this month, and so there was a window of time for the signing of only a few weeks.

Both presidents also wanted to sign the agreement on Afghan soil, he said, “because it's an indication of the progress that we have made together and the future that we are building together here in Afghanistan.”

In his remarks, Obama answered Republican criticism over the fact that he has set a deadline for American withdrawal, asserting that, in effect, there were limits to what the US could accomplish.

“Our goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban,” Obama said. “These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and many more American lives.”

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