Obama Says Defeat of al-Qaeda Within Reach, War Near End

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers an address to the American people on U.S. policy and the war in Afghanistan during his visit to Bagram Air Base on May 2, 2012 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photographer: Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images

President Barack Obama, in an address to the American public from Afghanistan, will say the defeat of al-Qaeda is within reach as is his goal of ending the decade-long war ignited by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war,” Obama said in excerpts of remarks he’ll deliver from Bagram Airfield. “Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”

Obama made his surprise trip to Afghanistan to sign an agreement on the future U.S. role there exactly one year after the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The president will deliver his speech roughly around the same time of day that a U.S. Navy SEAL team carried out the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The president is scheduled to give the speech at 7:30 p.m. Washington time.

Earlier, Obama signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that outlines future U.S. support for Afghanistan. The accord 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.

‘Acute Challenges’

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.

Today’s events are the latest attempt by Obama to turn the page on U.S. military involvement abroad. Although he inherited the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan 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.

“This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end,” Obama will say in his address.

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.

Security Threats

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.

Remarks to Troops

Speaking to U.S. military personnel at Bagram after signing the partnership agreement, 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.

Force Levels

“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.

Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a tribal elder in volatile southern province of Helmand, said he was optimistic that the agreement would prevent the country from being torn apart as it was following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, which opened the way for the Taliban.

Backup Power

“Taliban are thinking they would rule Afghanistan again, but fortunately this time the country has powerful backups from the U.S., and that won’t happen,” he said in a telephone interview.

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.

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