President Obama Travels to Afghanistan for Signing of Long-term Strategic Pact

BY Larisa Epatko  May 1, 2012 at 3:33 PM EDT

President Obama greeted Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti (left) and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker when he arrived at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul late Tuesday night.

Updated 8 p.m. ET | President Obama made a surprise visit to the Afghan capital of Kabul on Tuesday to mark the one-year anniversary of the finding and killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

He and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed an agreement outlining the future U.S. role in Afghanistan after most NATO forces leave in 2014 and solidifying a long-term commitment between the two countries.

Mr. Obama also delivered an address to the nation, which you can view in its entirety here:

Updated 6:30 p.m. ET | The White House released some quotes ahead of time from President Obama’s upcoming speech:

Already, nearly half the Afghan people live in places where Afghan Security Forces are moving into the lead. 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.

As we do, our troops will be coming home. Last year, we removed 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Another 23,000 will leave by the end of the summer. After that, reductions will continue at a steady pace, with more of our troops coming home. And as our coalition agreed, by the end of 2014 the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country.

My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. 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.

This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end.

Updated 6:15 p.m. ET | On Tuesday’s broadcast, Gwen Ifill asked Patrick Quinn, Kabul bureau chief for the Associated Press, about how President Obama’s visit was received on the ground. Here’s an excerpt:

Updated 6 p.m. ET | Senior administration officials spoke about the timing of the agreement’s signing, and why it took place at the one-year anniversary of the Osama bin Laden raid, in a background teleconference call Tuesday evening.

They said U.S. and Afghan negotiators were hammering out the deal for 20 months, it was finalized several weeks ago and both presidents needed to approve it. They wanted to sign it on Afghan soil and before the NATO conference in Chicago in mid-May, the administration officials said.

And what better place to spend the anniversary of the raid than with the troops who were in harm’s way, they added.

As for the number of troops that will remain after 2014, the decision will be made with the International Security Assistance Force and with Afghanistan, and the goal will continue to be dismantling al-Qaida and denying them a safe haven in Afghanistan, they said.

Updated 5:25 p.m. ET | While still at Bagram Air Base, President Obama spoke to the U.S. troops, acknowledging their efforts of the past decade.

Calling them the “new greatest generation,” he said, “Not only were we able to decimate the ranks of al-Qaida, a year ago we were finally able to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.

“Each and every one of you without a lot of fanfare and without a lot of fuss, you did your job,” he said.

Updated 5:10 p.m. ET | Our politics beat points out this BuzzFeed story about how the White House tried to contain the news about President Obama’s trip until he was safely on the ground.

Updated 5 p.m. ET | According to the White House press office, the strategic partnership agreement — two years in the making — describes the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan in 2014 and beyond. From the agreement:

When it comes to an enduring U.S. presence, President Obama has been clear: we do not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Instead, the Strategic Partnership Agreement commits Afghanistan to provide U.S. personnel access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014 and beyond. The Agreement provides for the possibility of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, for the purposes of training Afghan Forces and targeting the remnants of al-Qaeda, and commits the United States and Afghanistan to initiate negotiations on a Bilateral Security Agreement to supersede our current Status of Forces Agreement. The United States will also designate Afghanistan a “Major Non-NATO Ally” to provide a long-term framework for security and defense cooperation.

To be clear, the Strategic Partnership Agreement itself does not commit the United States to any specific troop levels or levels of funding in the future, as those are decisions will be made in consultation with the U.S. Congress. It does, however, commit the United States to seek funding from Congress on an annual basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of Afghan National Security Forces, as well as for social and economic assistance.

Updated 4:54 p.m. ET | On Monday’s NewsHour, Judy Woodruff spoke to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and the New American Foundation’s Brian Fishman about the current state and influence of al-Qaida:

Updated 4:38 p.m. ET | Josh Gerstein of Politico, the White House pool reporter traveling with the president, said the two leaders signed the partnership agreement at the presidential palace in Kabul just after midnight local time.

President Obama called it “a historic moment for our two nations,” Gerstein wrote.

Said Mr. Obama: “I’m here to affirm the bond between our two countries and to thank Americans and Afghans who have sacrificed so much over these last 10 years.

“There will be difficult days ahead … as we move forward I’m confident Afghan forces will grow stronger and the Afghan people will take control of their future,” he reportedly said.

Karzai reportedly offered profuse thanks to negotiators on the agreement, including U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker and Gen. John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force – Afghanistan.

Updated 4:25 p.m. ET | Seth Jones, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, said it’s encouraging that the U.S. and Afghan governments have made some progress on the broader relationship.

The Taliban seem to have lost ground in Afghanistan, but the key will be how neighboring countries behave once U.S. and NATO forces have a smaller footprint there, he said.

The record of insurgents winning over the long run when they have sanctuary and outside support is about two-thirds of the time, said Jones. So if nothing is done about the sanctuary and support, he said he’s not optimistic about maintaining the partial successes.

Updated 4 p.m. ET | Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told the NewsHour that the Afghan pact is likely very similar to the long-term strategic agreement with Iraq.

It will describe a security relationship and long-term diplomatic ties, he said. There are separate memorandums on detainees and use of night raids to capture militants, which are very difficult issues to negotiate, he continued.

The real test of these documents will be how well the political leadership in both governments is committed to bilateral cooperation, Katulis said.

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