Click image to see more photos. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
President Barack Obama on Tuesday paid a surprise visit to Afghanistan, slipping into Kabul under a thick veil of secrecy to sign a long-term partnership deal meant to help bring down the curtain on America's longest war.
Obama, whose trip came one year to the day after elite American troops killed Osama bin laden in neighboring Pakistan, inked the deal in a ceremony with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"Neither Americans nor the Afghan people asked for this war, yet for a decade we've stood together," Obama said against the backdrop of marble columns at the stately presidential palace. "Together, we're now committed to replacing war with peace and pursuing a more hopeful future as equal partners."
Obama warned that "there will be difficult days ahead" as NATO-led troops work to train Afghan forces to combat the Taliban and their al-Qaida and other extremist allies before the alliance forces withdraw at the end of 2014.
The president planned to make a roughly 10-minute televised address to the nation at 7:30 p.m. from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
A White House fact sheet on the long-term pact, fruit of nearly two years of talks, emphasized that the United States did not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan but would operate from Afghan facilities. The agreement also allows for an unspecificed number of US forces to remain past 2014 to train their local counterparts and target al-Qaida "remnants." And it commits Washington to designating Kabul a "Major Non-NATO Ally," a special status that makes it easier to provide military aid.
Obama's trip came as he and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney waged a pitched political battle over how much credit the president should get for the daring Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's fortified compound in Abbottabad one year ago.
The president left Andrews Air Force Base, home to his blue and white liveried Air Force One, at 12:09 a.m. Tuesday morning and landed at Bagram at 10:20 p.m. local time. He then took a helicopter to the presidential palace in Kabul, where he arrived just after 11 p.m. local.
The unannounced trip recalled President George W. Bush's Thanksgiving 2003 trip to Iraq, a cloak-and-dagger operation that saw him sneak off his Texas ranch, fly to Washington and then on to Baghdad with a small group of aides and "pool" reporters. Obama's visit also comes on the ninth anniversary of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech about the Iraq war, a cautionary tale for any president tempted to take a "victory lap" in wartime.
Obama previously visited Afghanistan in March 2010 and December 2010, and traveled to Iraq in April 2009. Bush visited Iraq in November 2003, June 2006, and September 2007, and traveled to Afghanistan in March 2006. In December 2008, Bush visited Iraq and Afghanistan.
The TOLONews website that specializes in news about Afghanistan reported Tuesday, citing Afghan officials, that Obama had arrived in Kabul to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. That report was widely picked up in world news outlets, but it was immediately denied by the U.S. embassy in the Afghan capital as well as the White House. That fed speculation that the president was on his way to Kabul but not actually on the ground yet.The print media "pool reporter" accompanying Obama, Politico's Josh Gerstein, said top Obama aides scheduled the signing ceremony and subsequent 4 a.m. local televised address at a time convenient for broadcast to the United States.
But the secrecy surrounding the trip--a media blackout, arriving in darkness--highlighted the grim security situation in Afghanistan 11 ½ years after American soldiers invaded in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes.
The visit came as the Pentagon released an Afghan War progress report that highlights "both long-term and acute challenges" of the conflict; and warns that the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies "still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan."
"The insurgency's safe haven in Pakistan, as well as the limited capacity of the Afghan Government, remain the biggest risks to the process of turning security gains into a durable and sustainable Afghanistan," according to the report.
The Pentagon cited "shocks" like the slaughter of 17 Afghan civilians, allegedly by an American soldier, but reported that insurgent attacks had decreased nine percent in 2011 from 2010, the first ebb in five years. It also reported that Afghan security forces, while improving, still face challenges from troops who quit and rampant corruption.
The trip also had a strongly political flavor: Obama has been using the May 1, 2011 bin Laden raid as a political cudgel to pummel presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
"I think them taking credit for the right decision is entirely appropriate. I think trying to attack me on that basis is disappointing and the wrong course," Romney said in an interview with "CBS This Morning."
"Of course the right course was to assassinate, execute Osama bin Laden and that is precisely what happened, and I congratulate the president for doing so. And I am confident and that of course I would have taken exactly the same decision," Romney said, "any thinking American would have ordered exactly the same thing."
The Obama campaign released a brutal ad calling into question whether Romney would have ordered the raid. After Republicans complained that the president was overdoing it, Obama denied any "excessive celebration" and took a veiled shot at his all-but-certain rival.
Administration officials traveling with Obama insisted that the purpose of the trip was to sign the partnership agreement.
The accord is sure to shape the discussion at a late-May NATO summit in Chicago. Leaders there are expected to agree on a plan for handing Afghan forces control of their own country, enabling allied troops to pull out.
The partnership deal reportedly gives Afghans control over prisoners and makes night raids--a frequent source of Afghan resentment and anger--subject to approval from the Afghan government.
Still, Obama also marked the anniversary on his campaign Twitter feed, sending out a link to the iconic photograph taken in the Situation Room when the outcome of the raid was still unclear.
And the White House tweeted the video of his speech announcing bin Laden's death.
Republicans bristled at what they hotly described as unseemly celebration by the Democratic incumbent. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld growled on his Twitter feed that "The special operators who have every right to 'spike the football' are too professional to do so. The White House might follow their lead."
(Since May 1 is also the anniversary of former President George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, it bears noting that Rumsfeld said in October 2006 that he edited an early draft to strike out those triumphant words )
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had previously thanked in person the Navy SEAL team that killed bin Laden and awarded the elite commandos a Presidential Unit Citation. Obama and Biden met the team at Fort Campbell scarcely one week after the raid.
"They're America's 'quiet professionals'--because success demands secrecy. But I will say this. Like all of you, they could have chosen a life of ease. But like you, they volunteered. They chose to serve in a time of war, knowing they could be sent into harm's way. They trained for years. They're battle-hardened. They practiced tirelessly for this mission. And when I gave the order, they were ready," Obama said in a speech. "On behalf of all Americans and people around the world: Job well done. Job well done."
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