On a swift, secretive trip to the war zone, President Barack Obama declared Tuesday night that after years of sacrifice the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan is winding down just as it has already ended in Iraq. “We can see the light of a new day,” he said on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death and in the midst of his own re-election campaign.
“Our goal is to destroy al-Qaida, and we are on a path to do exactly that,” Mr. Obama said in an unusual speech to America broadcast from an air base halfway around the world.
In a blunt reminder of Afghanistan’s fragile security situation, three explosions occurred in Kabul just hours after Mr. Obama left the country. Kabul police official Mohammed Zahir said the blasts were heard near a “camp for foreigners” in the eastern part of the capital. He said gunfire was also heard.
The President landed in Bagram in darkness, and his helicopter roared to Kabul for the meeting with Karzai, under close guard with only the outlines of the nearby mountains visible. Later, back at the base, he was surrounded by U.S. troops, shaking every hand. He ended his lightning visit with the speech delivered straight to the television camera and the voters he was trying to reach back home.
Two armored troop carriers served as a backdrop, rather than the customary Oval Office tableau.
Mr. Romney accused Mr. Obama of politicising the fleeting national unity that came with the death of bin Laden, the 9/11 terror mastermind.
In a statement released by his campaign later, Mr. Romney said he was pleased that Mr. Obama had returned to Afghanistan, that the troops and the American people deserved to hear from the president what is at stake in the war. “Success in Afghanistan is vital to our nation’s security,” he said.
At the air base, Mr. Obama said, “This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end. ... With faith in each other, and our eyes fixed on the future, let us finish the work at hand and forge a just and lasting peace.”
Earlier, he delivered a similarly upbeat message to the troops. Noting their sacrifice, he said, “There’s a light on the horizon.”
It was Mr. Obama’s fourth trip to Afghanistan, his third as commander in chief. He was less than seven hours on the ground in all. He also visited troops at a hospital at the Bagram base, awarding 10 Purple Hearts.
According to the Pentagon, more than 1,800 American troops have been killed across more than a decade of war in Afghanistan.
Some 88,000 remain stationed there.
The wars here and in Iraq combined have cost almost $1.3 trillion. And recent polls show that up to 60 percent of Americans oppose the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
In his speech to the nation, Mr. Obama said, “I recognise many Americans are tired of war.”
Without mentioning the political campaign back home, Mr. Obama claimed that on his watch the fortunes of the terrorists have suffered mightily.
Over the past three years “the tide has turned. We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al-Qaida’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders,” he said.
“And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin laden.”
In a reference to the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, he added, “As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America ... a united America of grit and resilience, where sunlight glistens off soaring new towers in downtown Manhattan, and we build our future as one people, as one nation.”
Mr. Obama flew to the site of America’s longest war not only as commander in chief but also as an incumbent president in the early stages of a tough re-election campaign. Nor were the two roles completely distinct.
In the political realm, he and Vice President Joe Biden have marked the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death by questioning whether Republican challenge Romney would have ordered the daring raid that penetrated the terrorist leader’s Pakistan hide—out. Republicans are accusing the president of trying for political gain from the event, and Romney is insisting that he would indeed have ordered U.S. forces into action.
The deal signed with Mr. Karzai does not commit the United States to any specific troop presence or spending. But it does allow the U.S. to potentially keep troops in Afghanistan after the war ends for two specific purposes- continued training of Afghan forces and targeted operations against al—Qaida. The terror group is present in neighbouring Pakistan but has only a nominal presence inside Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama said the agreement was meant in part to pay tribute to the U.S. troops who have died in Afghanistan since the war began. He also underlined his message to Afghans.
“With this agreement I am confident that the Afghan people will understand that the United States will stand by them,” he said.
Mr. Karzai said his countrymen “will never forget” the help of U.S. forces over the past decade. He said the partnership agreement shows the United States and Afghanistan will continue to fight terrorism together. The United States promises to seek money from Congress every year to support Afghanistan.
To the troops, he readily conceded continued hardship.