President Barack Obama assured the American public the defeat of al-Qaeda is within reach as he marked the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden with a visit to Afghanistan and an agreement that prepares the way to bring U.S. troops home.
“My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war,” Obama said at Bagram Airfield, where he had arrived about six hours earlier. “Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”
The drama of the surprise trip to Afghanistan, with the presidential plane landing in a war zone with lights out and window shades drawn and Obama addressing the nation from an aircraft hangar, provided more imagery to connect Obama with the death of bin Laden. The speech was delivered almost a year to the moment after a U.S. Navy Seal team raided bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Obama spoke in front of a totem of modern combat: a pair of tan camouflage Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, used to protect troops on patrol against insurgents’ weapon of choice -- hidden roadside explosives.
The signing of the partnership agreement with Afghanistan on the anniversary also reinforces the link between the killing of the U.S.’s most despised enemy and the return home of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, a war he also mentioned in the speech.
Discontent with the Iraq conflict fueled much of the early political support for Obama, one of the few Democrats who criticized the war from the start. The successful mission to eliminate bin Laden has supplied a rejoinder to Republicans who criticize the president as weak in dealings with regimes such as Iran and North Korea.
The al-Qaeda leader’s killing also is an undergirding for Obama’s re-election message, though the campaign remains focused on the economy.
Vice President Joe Biden recently crystallized that theme in single sentence: “Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” referring to the auto industry bailout Obama authorized shortly after taking office.
During his speech, the president credited the heroism of military servicemen and women, as well as his revamped strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, with leading to the war’s end.
“We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan Security forces,” he said. “We devastated al-Qaeda’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders.”
Goal ‘Within Reach’
“And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden,” he said. “The goal that I set -- to defeat al-Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild -- is within reach.”
Republicans including the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, have accused Obama of exploiting the killing of bin Laden to boost his image with voters. Romney also has criticized Obama for publicly setting a timeline for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The president defended the 2014 deadline for NATO to transfer all combat operations to Afghan security forces. After announcing a surge of 33,000 troops in December 2009, Obama last year said that he would draw down those combat forces by September 2012 -- just before the election.
Tempering expectations for what the end result will be in Afghanistan, Obama said in his speech that the goal can’t be fully eradicating the Taliban.
“These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and many more American lives,” he said.
At the same time, he said, leaving behind “a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America.”
Hours after Obama left Afghanistan, a suicide bombing near a camp for foreign workers in the capital of Kabul killed five Afghan civilians and a security guard, police chief Ayub Salangi said in a phone interview. The Taliban carried out the attack to underscore its ability to strike at will, its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said by phone.
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.
While acknowledging that American public support for the war is waning, Obama said it would be irresponsible to leave too quickly.
“We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize,” he said. “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.”
The U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, negotiated over the past 20 months and signed by Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, gives a framework for Afghan forces to take charge of the country’s security in 2014 as the U.S. and its coalition partners withdraw combat troops. It calls for supporting Afghan efforts to reconcile with the Taliban and includes an Afghan pledge to protect human rights and reduce corruption.
The accord says that any remaining U.S. troops will focus strictly on counterterrorism and training of Afghan security forces.
Funding for efforts in Afghanistan beyond 2014, the precise number of U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan after 2014, and whether U.S. forces would be offered legal protections aren’t outlined in the agreement.
Obama said the transition to Afghan responsibility for their security has already begun. At the NATO summit in Chicago later this month, allies will set a goal for Afghan forces to be in the lead for combat operations across the country next year, Obama said.
Twenty-three thousand troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of the summer, in addition to 10,000 that left last year -- the number of troops he authorized for the surge, Obama said.
“After that, reductions will continue at a steady pace, with more of our troops coming home,” Obama said. “As our coalition agreed, by the end of 2014 the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country.”
As the president highlighted the eventual transfer of authority to the Afghan government, the administration sought to temper expectations of what will be left behind.
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 released in Washington yesterday. “Additionally, the Afghan government continues to face widespread corruption that limits its effectiveness and legitimacy.”
Progress that’s been made since Obama ordered the surge of troops in 2010 may be undermined by the 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 yesterday from New York.
The Taliban are able to infiltrate “the villages and rural areas of Afghanistan, especially in the south,” Waheed Mujda, a former Taliban official who is now an analyst at the independent Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, said in a phone interview. Afghan security forces currently lack the equipment and training needed to allow them to hold on to security gains as U.S. forces withdraw, Mujda said.
Pakistan as ‘Partner’
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 some villages and remote mountainous regions, the threat will be mitigated by having a stable Afghan government in control of major cities, roads and thoroughfares.
No matter what happens, there will still be sectarian schisms in Afghanistan, the official said.
Addressing the issue of Pakistan, Obama balanced his message, saying the U.S. won’t compromise its national security interests, while also understanding the need to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Obama said he has made clear to Pakistan “that it can and should be an equal partner in this process in a way that respects Pakistan’s sovereignty, interests, and democratic institutions. In pursuit of a durable peace, America has no designs beyond an end to al-Qaeda safe havens and respect for Afghan sovereignty.”
The president delivered his speech in a hangar adjacent to where he addressed troops earlier in the day and where more than a dozen members of the coalition forces were gathered to watch a live feed.
Between the earlier remarks and the televised address, Obama visited a hospital on the base. He gave out 10 Purple Hearts and met with dozens of hospital personnel. Obama also used the military radio network to communicate with the U.S. military personnel working behind the scenes who helped support the trip.
The trip was cloaked in secrecy for security reasons. The White House released a schedule for the president that listed separate closed meetings with senior advisers, Biden and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Instead, the president left aboard Air Force One at 12:09 a.m. Washington time yesterday and flew through the night. The aircraft landed in darkness at Bagram at 10:20 p.m. local time. Obama’s plane took off for the return flight to the U.S. before sunrise. Obama is scheduled to arrive back at the White House later this morning.