President Obama addresses U.S. troops during a predawn visit to Bagram… (Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty…)
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 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.