OBAMA SEES 'NEW DAY' 1 YEAR AFTER BIN LADEN RAID
By Ben Feller
May 2, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan -- On a swift, secretive trip to the war zone, President Barack Obama declared Tuesday night that after years of sacrifice the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan is winding down just as it has already ended in Iraq. "We can see the light of a new day," he said on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death and in the midst of his own re-election campaign.
"Our goal is to destroy al-Qaida, and we are on a path to do exactly that," Obama said in an unusual speech to America broadcast from an air base halfway around the world.
He spoke after signing an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to cover the decade after the planned final withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in 2014. Obama said American forces will be involved in counter-terrorism and training of the Afghan military, "but we will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains."
In a blunt reminder of Afghanistan's fragile security situation, a series of explosions and gunfire erupted in Kabul just hours after Obama left, killing at least six people. The attacks occurred near a private armed compound that houses hundreds of international workers. One of the blasts was a suicide car bomb, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
The president landed in Bagram in darkness, and his helicopter roared to Kabul for the meeting with Karzai, under close guard with only the outlines of the nearby mountains visible. Later, back at the base, he was surrounded by U.S. troops, shaking every hand. He ended his lightning visit with the speech delivered straight to the television camera -- and the voters he was trying to reach back home.
Two armored troop carriers served as a backdrop, rather than the customary Oval Office tableau.
His Republican re-election foe, Mitt Romney, was in New York, where the destruction of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, set in motion the decisions that led to the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Romney accused Obama of politicizing the fleeting national unity that came with the death of bin Laden, the 9/11 terror mastermind.
In a statement released by his campaign later, Romney said he was pleased that Obama had returned to Afghanistan, that the troops and the American people deserved to hear from the president what is at stake in the war. "Success in Afghanistan is vital to our nation's security," he said.
At the air base, Obama said, "This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end. . . . With faith in each other, and our eyes fixed on the future, let us finish the work at hand and forge a just and lasting peace."
Earlier, he delivered a similarly upbeat message to the troops. Noting their sacrifice, he said, "There's a light on the horizon."
It was Obama's fourth trip to Afghanistan, his third as commander in chief. He was less than seven hours on the ground in all. He also visited troops at a hospital at the Bagram base, awarding 10 Purple Hearts.
According to the Pentagon, more than 1,800 American troops have been killed across more than a decade of war in Afghanistan.
Some 88,000 remain stationed there.
The wars here and in Iraq combined have cost almost $1.3 trillion. And recent polls show that up to 60 percent of Americans oppose the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
In his speech to the nation, Obama said, "I recognize many Americans are tired of war."
He said that 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."
Without mentioning the political campaign back home, Obama claimed that on his watch the fortunes of the terrorists have suffered mightily.
Over the past three years "the tide has turned. We broke the Taliban's momentum. We've built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al-Qaida's leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders," he said.
"And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin laden."
In a reference to the destruction of New York's World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, he added, "As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America ... 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."
He spoke for less than 15 minutes, beginning at 4:00 a.m. in Afghanistan, 7:30 p.m. on the East Coast of the United States. Minutes later, Air Force One was on its way back to Washington.
Obama flew to the site of America's longest war not only as commander in chief but also as an incumbent president in the early stages of a tough re-election campaign. Nor were the two roles completely distinct.
His presence was a reminder that since taking office in 2009, Obama has ended the war in Iraq and moved to create an orderly end for the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan.
In the political realm, he and Vice President Joe Biden have marked the one-year anniversary of bin Laden's death by questioning whether Republican challenge Romney would have ordered the daring raid that penetrated the terrorist leader's Pakistan hide-out. Republicans are accusing the president of trying for political gain from the event, and Romney is insisting that he would indeed have ordered U.S. forces into action.
The deal signed with Karzai does not commit the United States to any specific troop presence or spending. But it does allow the U.S. to potentially keep troops in Afghanistan after the war ends for two specific purposes: continued training of Afghan forces and targeted operations against al-Qaida. The terror group is present in neighboring Pakistan but has only a nominal presence inside Afghanistan.
Obama said the agreement was meant in part to pay tribute to the U.S. troops who have died in Afghanistan since the war began. He also underlined his message to Afghans.
"With this agreement I am confident that the Afghan people will understand that the United States will stand by them," he said.
Karzai said his countrymen "will never forget" the help of U.S. forces over the past decade. He said the partnership agreement shows the United States and Afghanistan will continue to fight terrorism together. The United States promises to seek money from Congress every year to support Afghanistan.
To the troops, he readily conceded continued hardship.
"I know the battle's not yet over," he said. "Some of your buddies are going to get injured. And some of your buddies may get killed. And there's going to be heartbreak and pain and difficulty ahead." He added that his administration is committed to ensuring that once the war is over, veterans will be given their due.
Officials have previously said as many as 20,000 U.S. troops may remain after the combat mission ends, but that still must still be negotiated.
The president's Tuesday night address was coming exactly one year after special forces, on his order, began the raid that led to the killing of bin Laden in Pakistan.
Since then, ties between the United States and Afghanistan have been tested anew by the burning of Muslim holy books at a U.S. base and the massacre of 17 civilians, including children, allegedly by an American soldier.
Obama had gone twice before to Afghanistan as president, most recently in December 2010, and once to Iraq in 2009. All such trips, no matter how carefully planned, carry the weight and the risks of considerable security challenges. Just last month, the Taliban began near-simultaneous assaults on embassies, government buildings and NATO bases in Kabul.
Besides the U.S. troops in Afghanistan, there are 40,000 in coalition forces from other nations.
--Associated Press writers Anne Gearan and David Espo, Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this story.
OBAMA SIGNS PACT IN KABUL, TURNING PAGE IN AFGHAN WAR
By Mark Landler
New York Times
May 2, 2012 (posted May 1)
KABUL, Afghanistan -- President Obama, speaking to an American television audience on Tuesday night from Bagram Air Base, declared that he had traveled here to herald a new era in the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan, “a future in which war ends, and a new chapter begins.”
Mr. Obama’s address, during an unannounced visit to sign a strategic partnership agreement with President Hamid Karzai that sets the terms for relations after the departure of American troops in 2014, was a chance for him to make an election-year case that he is winding down a costly and increasingly unpopular war.
“My fellow Americans,” he said, speaking against a backdrop of armored military vehicles and an American flag, “we’ve 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 new day on the horizon.”
His speech came as an already difficult relationship with Mr. Karzai has been strained by recent events, including the release of photos showing American soldiers posing with the remains of Taliban insurgents and an American staff sergeant who has been charged in the killing of 16 Afghan civilians. Mr. Obama sought to portray the withdrawal as an unalloyed achievement, though it remains far from certain that the Afghan government can hold its own against the Taliban with reduced American support, or that what were once considered critical American goals here can still be met.
Hours after Mr. Obama left Afghanistan, at least two explosions shook Kabul on Wednesday morning, near a compound used by United Nations workers and other foreigners, local reports said. According to an interior minister, at least six people, including five civilians and a security guard, were killed. The Taliban has claimed responsibility.
The president’s dramatic six-hour visit, ending a year to the day after Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid in neighboring Pakistan, was laden with symbolism, historic and political. Speaking from the country where the 9/11 terrorist attacks were incubated, Mr. Obama suggested that America had come full circle.
“One year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden,” the president said. “The goal I set -- to defeat Al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild -- is now within our reach.”
Asserting that the United States had largely achieved its military goals, Mr. Obama said that Afghans were ready to take responsibility for their own security, a transition that will start in earnest next year when American and NATO troops step back from a combat role to training and counterterrorism operations.
But Mr. Obama also spoke of an “enduring partnership” with Afghanistan, invoking the agreement, which pledges American help for a decade in developing the Afghan economy and public institutions, though it makes no concrete financial commitments, which Congress would have to authorize each year.
The agreement, Mr. Karzai said during a midnight signing ceremony at his presidential palace, opened “a new chapter in the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan,” one marked by “mutual respect.”
Mr. Obama, who arrived after nightfall at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul under a veil of secrecy, flew by helicopter to the palace, passing low over the inky silhouette of the Hindu Kush Mountain range. Once there, he met briefly with Mr. Karzai before they emerged to sign the pact.
“With this agreement the Afghan people, and the world, should know that Afghanistan has a friend and a partner in the United States,” Mr. Obama said as Mr. Karzai looked on, along with an audience of Afghan and American officials, including two Democratic senators, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Carl Levin of Michigan.
As part of its effort to broker a political settlement between the Afghan government and insurgents, Mr. Obama said, “my administration has been in direct discussion with the Taliban.” It was his most candid acknowledgment of the often-shadowy talks between American diplomats and the Taliban.
If Mr. Obama was emphasizing American constancy at the palace, his speech to his audience back home put greater emphasis on turning the page. The United States, he said, needed to turn its energies from war to rebuilding, a resilience that was on display on the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, where “sunlight glistens off soaring new towers in downtown Manhattan.”
The president also answered critics, notably his likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, who said the administration erred by setting a deadline for withdrawing troops, since the Taliban could simply wait out the Americans.
“Our goal is not to build a country in American’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban,” Mr. Obama said. “These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars and many more American lives.”
The surprise trip came even as his re-election campaign set off a debate about the propriety of using Bin Laden’s killing to make a political argument in the battle with Mr. Romney. But Republicans largely held their rhetorical fire in the hours after Mr. Obama’s arrival in Afghanistan was made public.
In a statement issued after Mr. Obama left to return to Washington, Mr. Romney said he was “pleased” by the president trip. “It would be a tragedy for Afghanistan and a strategic setback for America if the Taliban returned to power and once again created a sanctuary for terrorists,” the statement said.
For the president, the visit showcased what his aides said was his determination to end the war responsibly, even as they conceded that the country American troops will leave behind will be a messy, violent place.
The president’s view was reflected in the remarks of another senior official, who told reporters that the agreement will give the United States “the capacity to carry out the counterterrorism operations that are necessary for Al Qaeda not to resettle.” It will help ensure “a regional equilibrium that serves our national security interest. And that’s ultimately why we went in there in the first place.”
Mr. Obama devoted much of his visit to the troops, visiting wounded soldiers at a hospital on Bagram Air Base, where he awarded 10 Purple Heart decorations, and speaking by radio to military personnel in other parts of the country who were involved in arranging his trip.
“The reason the Afghans have a new tomorrow is because of you,” Mr. Obama said to 3,200 cheering troops assembled before dawn on Wednesday in a cavernous hangar, against a backdrop of an American flag and several armored vehicles.
The timing of the trip, administration officials said, was dictated by the desire of both presidents to sign the agreement before a NATO summit meeting in Chicago later this month. But it also came just four days before two big campaign rallies that serve as the symbolic kickoff of Mr. Obama’s re-election bid, which will emphasize his success in ending the war in Iraq and winding down the conflict in Afghanistan.
With polls showing a large majority of Americans weary with the war, the president’s aides have discussed whether to accelerate current plans, which call for withdrawing 23,000 troops by September. In Chicago, the United States and NATO allies will ratify a shift in the mission in 2013 from a combat role to one focused on counterterrorism and training of Afghan security forces.
For Mr. Obama, the visit was a chance to meet again with Mr. Karzai, with whom the United States has had a sometimes difficult relationship. On a stop here in March 2010, Mr. Obama delivered pointed criticism of Mr. Karzai for the rampant graft in the Afghan government. Ten months later, he made a return trip, only to be grounded at Bagram by swirling winds, forcing him to speak to Mr. Karzai by phone.
Though Mr. Karzai appeared elated at the ceremony, he has frequently expressed frustration with the American presence, bitterly criticizing the United States on issues like night raids conducted by Special Operations troops and civilian casualties.
The United States turned over authority for those raids to Afghan forces last month, opening the door to the broader agreement. The pact signed early Wednesday, negotiated by the American ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan C. Crocker, and Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, addresses a broad range of issues, from security to social and economic development.
But it does not contain specific dollar commitments by the United States, which has led some critics to dismiss it as less a blueprint than a symbolic gesture.
To keep a wrap on Mr. Obama’s travels, the White House resorted to some legerdemain, putting out a schedule for Tuesday that said the president would take part in an Oval Office meeting with advisers in the morning, then meet there with Mr. Biden and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Tuesday afternoon.
Instead, late on Monday, Mr. Obama slipped out of the White House and traveled to Joint Base Andrews. At midnight, Air Force One, its lights switched off and window shades drawn, rolled out from behind a hangar. A small group of reporters, including one from The New York Times, were allowed to accompany the president, after they agreed not to report on his whereabouts until his helicopter landed in Kabul.
OBAMA SIGNS PACT, GREETS TROOPS IN SURPRISE AFGHANISTAN VISIT
By Laura King and Christi Parsons
Los Angeles Times
May 1, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Putting a symbolic seal on a long and brutal conflict, President Obama made a dramatic overnight visit to the Afghan capital, signing an accord meant to offer assurances that the United States is not abandoning Afghanistan but also acknowledging that the massive Western military presence is coming to a close.
After landing on a darkened runway late Tuesday night, Obama rushed to the heavily fortified presidential palace of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a strategic partnership accord that sets the broad outlines of U.S. engagement for a decade beyond the completion of NATO's combat role in 2014.
Obama's surprise visit, his first to the war zone since December 2010, was shrouded in secrecy for security reasons and came on the first anniversary of the U.S. military raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
White House aides said the president wanted to share the day with U.S. troops and that the unusual visit was driven by the desire to sign the accord in Afghanistan before Obama hosts a NATO summit in Chicago this month.
The signing ceremony took place just after midnight local time. Obama then spoke to several thousand U.S. troops in a cavernous hangar at Bagram air base, north of Kabul, at 1:20 a.m. and visited a base hospital. He addressed Americans in a live TV broadcast at 4:00 a.m. local time -- prime-time back home -- before flying out before sunrise Wednesday.
"My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war," Obama said, standing before armored vehicles. "Yet here, in the predawn 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."
Earlier, in remarks to the troops, Obama was greeted by cheers when he noted that "a year ago we were finally able to bring Osama bin Laden to justice." The troops responded with an "ooh-rah" roar and applause.
"It was always the president's intention to spend this anniversary with our troops," a senior Obama administration official told reporters Tuesday.
The vivid staging of the visit -- from the secretive arrival in darkness to a triumphant appearance before U.S. troops to promise an end to the war -- showed the Obama team in a tense election year making the most of what it considers a crucial victory. If Obama failed to pronounce "mission accomplished," it was only an omission of the phrase itself.
Nine years ago to the day, President George W. Bush landed in a jet on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and strode down the flight deck to announce the end of major U.S. combat operations in Iraq. Behind him a giant banner declared "Mission Accomplished," a premature claim of success that later embarrassed the White House.
By design, the strategic agreement signed by the two leaders early Wednesday is sweeping in scope but light on details. It took months of negotiations by the two sides to agree two weeks ago on a draft version.
Only in the last two months were negotiators able to clear final hurdles, handing Afghans greater authority over insurgent detainees and over carrying out nighttime raids that for the last two years have been a key tactic against a stubborn insurgency.
Karzai has long sought to draw the U.S. into a long-term relationship to help protect his country against the Taliban insurgency. But Obama has moved to curtail the U.S. role, a reversal of his earlier talk as a candidate when he spoke of winning the decade-old conflict and early in his administration when he sent 30,000 extra troops and committed himself to an ambitious counterinsurgency effort.
But his optimism dissipated over three years of hard fighting and limited progress. Not surprisingly, the just-signed deal reflects Obama's desires far more than Karzai's.
It falls well short of a military alliance and is not a formal treaty, which would require Senate ratification. It makes few concrete promises other than to provide unspecified military training, equipment, and development assistance to the Afghans for the next decade.
The agreement "does not commit the United States to any specific troop levels or levels of funding in the future," said a senior Obama administration official who briefed reporters in return for anonymity. "It does, however, commit the United States to seek funding from Congress on an annual basis" for the Afghan army and police as well as civilian aid to Afghanistan's cash-strapped government.
U.S. troop levels are due to fall from about 88,000 to 68,000 by September, at which point Obama will decide how quickly to withdraw remaining troops and how many will stay after 2014.
In his speech to the nation, Obama made clear the U.S. was not seeking permanent bases and said even the small U.S. force that remains will be focused on "two narrow missions" -- continued training of Afghan forces and going after any remnants of Al Qaeda.
The administration is also promising to give Afghanistan access to U.S. military equipment at preferential financing rates. But the main job of fighting the Taliban insurgency will fall on Afghan forces beginning in the middle of next year, when the U.S. and its allies will formally shift to a support role.
Critics fear that Afghan security forces are unprepared to take over fighting the insurgency and warn that a drop-off in the ranks could provide the seed for instability once Western combat troops depart.
Landing at Bagram air base at 10:20 p.m. Tuesday, Obama was greeted by senior American officials, including U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Waiting helicopters flew them to the center of Kabul, and a motorcade drove them to the presidential palace.
Despite the late hour, the signing ceremony featured pomp and circumstance. Obama and Karzai, standing before a row of their nation's flags, both appeared relieved.
"Mr. President, there will be difficult days ahead," Obama said to the Afghan leader. "As we move forward, I'm confident Afghan forces will grow stronger and the Afghan people will take control of their future."
There were warm handshakes all around. Karzai seemed to be in an ebullient mood and offered profuse thanks to negotiators on the 10-page agreement, including Crocker and Gen. John R. Allen, who commands NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Just hours after Obama's lightning visit, insurgent gunmen and bombers struck a foreigner-frequented guesthouse complex in the Afghan capital. In the attack's aftermath, several charred bodies could be seen lying in the street, and police reported six people had been killed.
Only two weeks earlier, the capital's diplomatic and governmental district was paralyzed by a wide-ranging insurgent attack on targets that included Western embassies and the Afghan parliament.
Obama's visit followed a series of damaging and morale-sapping incidents involving American forces.
In February, the apparently inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, by U.S. troops at the sprawling Bagram base -- where Air Force One landed Tuesday -- sparked more than a week of deadly riots.
In March, a U.S. Army staff sergeant allegedly went on a shooting spree outside his base in Kandahar province, killing men, women and children as they slept, and he now faces 17 counts of murder. In April, photos of U.S. soldiers posing with the bodies and body parts of Afghan militants two years ago were published in the *Los Angeles Times*.
A U.S. official said the episodes did not complicate negotiations on the strategic accord, and the agreement proved how the nations could work together "even given the tragic incidents of war."
White House aides said Obama had insisted on avoiding an unseemly commemoration of Bin Laden's death. But the timing of the trip immediately drew fire from the president's critics. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney marked the anniversary by alternately praising Obama for ordering the raid and accusing him of politicizing the moment.
"I think it's totally appropriate for the president to express to the American people the view that he has that he had an important role in taking out Osama bin Laden," Romney told reporters after bringing six pizzas to a fire station that lost 11 men in the Sept. 11 attacks.
For several days, the president, his campaign, and his surrogates have questioned whether Romney would have made the same decision to send a Navy SEAL team to capture or kill Bin Laden, based on comments Romney made during his unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign.
"Of course I would have ordered the taking out of Osama bin Laden," Romney said. "Of course. This is a person who had done terrible harm to America and who represented a continuing threat to civilized people throughout the world."
|< Prev||Next >|