President Barack Obama arrived in Afghanistan today on an unannounced trip to sign a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghan government that is a prelude to U.S. military disengagement from the decade-long war.
The accord outlining future U.S. support for Afghanistan took more than a year of negotiations and marks a milestone for the administration’s goal of handing over security responsibility to local forces by the end of 2014.
“I’ve come to Afghanistan to mark a historic moment for our two nations and to do so on Afghan soil,” Obama said at the presidential palace in Kabul before he signed the accord with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “I pay tribute to those Afghans who have lost their lives alongside our men and women and sacrificed for their country.”
Obama plans to follow the signing by delivering a televised address from Bagram Airfield at about 7:30 p.m. Washington time, before returning to the U.S.
The trip comes a year after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader who plotted the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that triggered the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. The president arrived the same day the Defense Department released a report saying the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan faces “long-term and acute challenges” from militant sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan and “widespread corruption” in the Afghan government.
Turning a Page
Today’s events are the latest attempt by Obama to turn the page on the country’s decade at war, in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan. Although he inherited both conflicts from his predecessor, George W. Bush, and fulfilled a pledge to end the war in Iraq, Obama took ownership of the Afghan war when he announced a revamped strategy and troop surge in December 2010.
As the president highlights the eventual transfer of authority to the Afghan government, the administration is seeking to temper expectations of what will be left behind when U.S. and coalition combat forces withdraw by 2014.
After more than 10 years of a sustained military presence, U.S. relations with the Afghan government, as well as with neighboring Pakistan, have soured and the situation on the ground has deteriorated.
The Taliban continues to pose a security threat even with the gains that have been made since Obama’s revamped war strategy. The Karzai government continues to be hobbled by theft, bribery and the inability of its forces to control all areas of the country.
“The insurgency remains a resilient and determined enemy and will likely attempt to regain lost ground and influence this spring and summer,” the Defense Department wrote in a semi-annual report sent to Congress yesterday and released in Washington today. “Additionally, the Afghan government continues to face widespread corruption that limits its effectiveness and legitimacy.”
The war has cost the lives of 1,831 U.S. military personnel and about $443 billion, according to figures from the Defense Department and the Congressional Research Service. This year, the administration plans to spend $90 billion on military operations and $16 billion for aid, including training and equipment. More than 1,000 troops from U.S. coalition partners, which includes the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also have died.
Message to Troops
Speaking to U.S. military personnel at Bagram after the signing, Obama thanked the troops for their sacrifices and noted that “a year ago we were able to finally bring Osama bin Laden to justice.”
He said the signing of the partnership agreement “signals the transition” to Afghan control.
“We’re not going to do it overnight, we aren’t going to do it irresponsibly,” he said.
Progress that’s been made since Obama ordered a surge of troops in 2010 may be undermined by the planned withdrawal of U.S. and allied combat forces in the next two years, the support of insurgents by neighboring Pakistan and Iran, and the remaining connections between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, said Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation in Arlington, Virginia
“There’s a major question about whether this process can be continued for the foreseeable future with the very light force presence,” Jones, who has advised the U.S. military, said in a telephone interview today from New York.
The U.S. will still have the capacity to carry out counterterrorism operations to keep al-Qaeda from resettling and allow for a regional equilibrium that serves a national security interest at home, according to an administration official who briefed reporters on the flight to Afghanistan.
While the official said there would still likely be Taliban influence in certain villages and remote mountainous regions, the threat will be mitigated by having a stable Afghan government in control of major cities, roads and thoroughfares.
Obama met with Karzai amid heightened tensions after a series of incidents involving U.S. military personnel have eroded ties between the two countries.
U.S. officials apologized last month after photos were published of U.S. Army soldiers desecrating the corpses of dead insurgents in Afghanistan. Earlier this year a video was released that showed U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of Afghans they had killed.
In March, relations were further strained after the murder of 17 Afghan civilians, for which U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales faces charges.
Obama in February apologized to Karzai for the burning of Korans in a trash dump at Bagram that sparked riots and led to attacks on U.S. personnel in Afghanistan. Two American advisers were shot dead in the Interior Ministry Feb. 25, while nine Afghans were killed and two American soldiers wounded in a suicide car-bombing in eastern Afghanistan Feb. 27.
The fraying situation has extended into the 2012 campaign. Falling support for the war from the American public has provided an opening for Republicans, including the party’s presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney, to try to undercut Obama’s strong approval ratings on foreign policy.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents in a March 26 New York Times/CBS News poll said the U.S. should not be at war in Afghanistan, with 68 percent saying the fighting was going “somewhat badly” or “very badly” -- a jump from 42 percent in November.
Obama, whose 2008 candidacy was largely based on his initial opposition to the Iraq war, still receives his highest job-approval ratings on foreign policy and national security issues while his lowest ratings are on his handling of the economy.
Romney has criticized the president as “naïve” for telegraphing when the U.S may begin withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan and has said he would defer to generals on the ground on troop levels and timelines. Still, he has indicated that he supports the withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.
The trip was cloaked in secrecy for security reasons. The White House last night released a schedule for the president that listed separate closed meetings with senior advisers, Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Instead, the president left aboard Air Force One at 12:09 a.m. Washington time and flew through the night. With lights off and window shades drawn, the aircraft landing in darkness at Bagram at 10:20 p.m. local time.
After greeting U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker and Army Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti on the tarmac, Obama boarded a Night Hawk helicopter for the 30-minute flight to Kabul, where he met with Karzai at the presidential palace. The helicopters flew to the capital without lights, and reporters, ferried in separate craft, were issued body armor for the ride.
Also in Afghanistan were Democratic Senators Carl Levin of Michigan, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, two members of the Armed Services Committee who arrived in Afghanistan at 7:30 p.m. local time last night. They were there as part of a broader trip that includes stops in Turkey and NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Obama is scheduled to leave for Washington immediately after tonight’s speech. This is his third trip to Afghanistan as president. He was there last on Dec. 3, 2010, to address U.S. forces at Bagram before the release of a review of the war strategy which called for strengthening Afghan government services and shutting down havens for militants across the border in Pakistan.
Administration officials had set a goal of having the agreement signed before the May 21 NATO summit in Chicago.
There, Obama will meet with NATO allies to seek agreements on the next phase of the transition to support the goal of ending combat missions in 2014, define the relationship with Afghanistan after that period and work with the Afghans to ensure that security forces are funded.
Negotiations for the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership took longer than a year, ending last month with Americans agreeing to end night raids and to transfer its main prison at Bagram to Karzai’s government.