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Thursday, May 3, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 a.m.

In surprise visit to Afghanistan, Obama sees 'light of a new day'

By Kevin Sieff
The Washington Post

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Obama on Tuesday outlined his plan to end America's longest foreign war during a visit colored by election-year politics and economic uncertainty, declaring "this time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end."

"We have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war," Obama said from a U.S. military base. "In the predawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon."

He delivered his address at the end of an unannounced visit to sign a long-term partnership agreement with the Afghan government and to mark, alongside U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base outside this capital city, the one-year anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The trip came amid criticism at home that Obama is using the raid to advance his re-election prospects by featuring his decision to launch the mission in campaign videos and other political settings. Republican critics have called his leadership abroad weak, but Obama has held up the bin Laden operation as evidence that he is willing to make risky decisions to protect U.S. interests.

His arrival in Afghanistan was timed to make the "strategic partnership agreement" official before an important NATO summit this month — and, in the words of one senior administration official traveling with Obama, to take advantage of "a resonant day for both our countries on the anniversary of the death of bin Laden."

The visit was directed almost entirely toward an American audience, unfolding while most Afghans slept. It also served as a détente after some of the tensest months in U.S.-Afghan relations.

Since February, U.S. service members have inadvertently burned Qurans at a U.S. military base, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly murdered 17 civilians near Kandahar, and at least 18 NATO troops have been killed by their Afghan counterparts. In addition to infuriating Afghans, the incidents have contributed to rising war fatigue at home.

Opinion polls show most Americans no longer believe the war is worth fighting. But the strategic agreement and the troop-withdrawal schedule allow Obama to say he has ended the Iraq war and is winding down the one in Afghanistan, a position even a majority of Republicans favor.

"The Iraq war is over," Obama said Tuesday. "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-Qaida."

Obama campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to end the Iraq war, something he did in December, and to strengthen the U.S. effort in Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban appeared resurgent and al-Qaida was active in the border regions with Pakistan.

With opposition to the Afghan war building within his party, Obama announced the beginning of the end of the U.S. mission last year by adopting a withdrawal timeline more rapid than some of his commanders recommended.

The decision drew criticism from some of his GOP rivals, including the presumptive presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, that Obama was calibrating his war strategy to the election calendar. Romney, who on Tuesday gave Obama a share of the credit for bin Laden's killing, has said the U.S. goal should be to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield.

But Obama laid out a different ambition. "Our goal is not to build a country in America's image or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban," he said. "These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al-Qaida, and we are on a path to do exactly that."

The last of the 33,000 troops Obama dispatched to Afghanistan in 2009 will head home at the end of September. Senior administration officials said Tuesday that, while no specific future troop levels have been determined, a "steady reduction" will follow over the next two years.

Obama's timeline calls on Afghan security forces to take the lead in combat operations by the end of next year. All U.S. troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2014, except for trainers who will assist Afghan forces and a small contingent of troops with a specific mission to combat al-Qaida through counterterrorism missions.

In his remarks, Obama emphasized the United States will not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan, a country that for centuries has fiercely opposed foreign interlopers.

Those U.S. trainers and special-operations troops that remain beyond 2014 would live on Afghan bases. Senior administration officials said the agreement is meant to send a signal to the Taliban that they cannot "wait out" the international presence, which is supporting a fragile Afghan government.

Obama arrived at Bagram Air Base, 30 miles north of Kabul, at 10:20 p.m. local time and boarded a helicopter for a flight into the capital. He arrived at the presidential palace after 11 p.m. for a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, who has had a contentious relationship with Obama over the years.

In signing the agreement after 20 months of difficult negotiations, Obama said "the Afghan people and the world should know that Afghanistan has a partner in the United States."

Karzai long has sought reassurance from Obama that U.S. support would not wane after 2014. The agreement commits the president to ask Congress for money to support Afghanistan through 2024, but it does not set a specific amount of annual aid.

The deal is designed to promote the training of Afghan forces, a reconciliation and reintegration process for Taliban fighters who leave the battlefield, and regional stability with a focus on improving relations with Pakistan.

In speaking with troops after the signing ceremony, Obama sounded notes of praise and hope.

"I know the battle is not yet over; some of your buddies are going to get injured, some of your buddies may get killed. And there's going to be heartbreak and pain ahead," he said. "But there is a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices you made."

At the heart of Karzai's past discontent have been two issues that appeared to have the potential to obstruct a long-term partnership: night operations and a U.S. military prison at Bagram.

At Karzai's behest, the U.S. this year agreed to cede control of the night raids and the detention center to Afghan security forces — concessions that paved the way for the partnership agreement.

But beyond the substantive reforms that Karzai has demanded, Afghan officials say their president also has longed for more access to U.S. leaders, a wish that Obama's rare visit to Kabul may have sought to satisfy.

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