During a surprise visit to Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama detailed his vision today for ending the long-running American involvement in that country's conflict in the war against terrorism.
Speaking from Bagram Air Field, Obama outlined his endgame strategy in Afghanistan on the one-year anniversary of the death on al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The president said that we must finish the job we started and end this war responsibly.
"My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war," Obama said. "Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq War is over. The number of our troops in harm's way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al Qaeda."
Under heavy security and a shroud of secrecy, Obama arrived at the still-volatile country shortly after nightfall; he departed on Air Force One shortly after the speech ended, just before local dawn.
Before the speech, Obama met with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace and signed a 10-year strategic partnership that goes into effect at the end of 2014 - when the last of the U.S. combat troops are scheduled to leave the country.
"Today with the signing of the strategic partnership agreement, we look forward to a future of peace," Obama said. "Today we're agreeing to be long term partners."
The new pact has the United States shifting into a support role by the end of 2014 and for 10 years hence. There will be no permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan, with U.S. forces providing training and counter-terrorism - but the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.
"Already, nearly half the Afghan people live in places where Afghan Security Forces are moving into the lead," Obama said. "This month, at a NATO Summit in Chicago, our coalition will set a goal for Afghan forces to be in the lead for combat operations across the country next year. International troops will continue to train, advise and assist the Afghans, and fight alongside them when needed. But we will shift into a support role as Afghans step forward."
One of the more controversial elements of Obama's speech indicated that members of the Taliban could be involved in the peace process. The president said that his administration has been in contact with that group that has so been a thorn in the side of the U.S. forces.
He said that some members of the Taliban have been seeking reconciliation, which the Afghans may consider - although as a condition, they must agree to abandon al-Qaeda.
The United States sent troops into Afghanistan a few weeks after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. These forces quickly eliminated the Taliban government that had harbored bin Laden and the other terrorists who had planned the 9-11 attacks.
They installed a democratic government, which has largely been ineffective, corrupt and unable to provide effective security - and as the years dragged on, the war became increasingly unpopular at home, particularly as the casualties continued to grow.
At present, the U.S. has approximately 88,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Obama used troop withdrawal as a key plank in his election platform prior to the 2008 election, and he pulled out 10,000 troops last year - with another 23,000 troops scheduled to depart in the fall. The president said that he would continue a steady pace of troop reduction.
"This future is only within reach because of our men and women in uniform," Obama said. "Time and again, they have answered the call to serve in distant and dangerous places. In an age when so many institutions have come up short, these Americans stood tall. They met their responsibilities to one another, and the flag they serve under. I just met with some of them, and told them that as Commander-in-Chief, I could not be prouder. In their faces, we see what is best in ourselves and our country."
And since this is an election year, Obama took advantage of the opportunity to call for a sense of renewal for America - reminding people that he has followed through on his campaign promises to kill bin Laden, crush al-Qaeda, and end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America," he said. "An America where our children live free from fear, and have the skills to claim their dreams. 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."
In response, several Republicans took the high road and supported the agreement and even gave the president a modicum of credit.
"A lot of people both here and in Congress including Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Lieberman worked on this strategic partnership agreement and it's important that we send a message to friends and enemies alike that the United States has a long-term commitment to Afghanistan," Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) told CNN.
Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, also was supportive.
"I want to congratulate President Obama and his team including Ambassador Grossman and national security advisors for entering into the SPA which with proper implementation will secure our long-term strategic interests in Afghanistan," Graham said. "Particular credit goes to General Allen and Ambassador Crocker for their time and effort in negotiating this historic agreement. They have done tremendous work which should be appreciated by all Americans."
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee to face Obama in November, has not commented officially, although he has previously accused Obama of politicizing the death of bin Laden to gain political favor.
by RTT Staff Writer
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