U.S. President Barack Obama slipped into Afghanistan Tuesday night on an unannounced visit — coinciding with the anniversary of the killing of 9-11 mastermind Osama bin Laden — to sign an agreement cementing a U.S. commitment to the nation after the long and unpopular war there comes to an end.
The partnership spells out the US relationship with Afghanistan beyond 2014, covering security, economics and governance. The deal is limited in scope and essentially gives both sides political cover: Afghanistan gets its sovereignty and a promise it won't be abandoned, while the U.S. gets to end its combat mission but keep a foothold in the country.
The deal 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-Qaeda, which is present in neighbouring Pakistan but has only a nominal presence inside Afghanistan.
Obama was greeted at Bagram Airfield by Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Obama then flew by helicopter to the presidential palace in Kabul, where he was to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and sign the strategic partnership.
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 United States does promise to seek money from Congress every year to support Afghanistan.
Obama was to be on the ground for about seven hours in Afghanistan, where the United States has been engaged in war for more than a decade following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The trip carries major symbolic significance for a president seeking a second term and allows him to showcase what the White House considers the fruit of Obama's refocused war effort: the demise of bin Laden.
Air Force One touched down late at night local time at Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base here.
Media travelling with Obama on the 13-plus-hour flight had to agree to keep it secret until Obama had safely finished a helicopter flight to the nation's capital, Kabul, where Taliban insurgents still launch lethal attacks.
Obama is joining Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the agreement that will broadly govern the U.S. role in Afghanistan after the American combat mission stops at the end of 2014 — 13 years after it began.
Obama will also give a speech designed to reach Americans in the U.S. dinnertime hour of 7:30 p.m. EDT. It will be 4 a.m. here when Obama speaks.
His war address will come exactly one year after special forces, on his order, began the raid that led to the killing of bin Laden in Pakistan.
Tense U.S.-Afghan relations
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's overarching message will be that the war is ending on his watch but the U.S. commitment to its ally is not.
Politics, too, set the tone for what the White House hoped would be a positive message and image for Obama: the commander in chief setting a framework to end the war while reassuring Afghanistan, on its soil, it will not be abandoned.
At home, Obama's Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has retorted to the Obama campaign's suggestion that Romney might not have gone after bin Laden as Obama did.
"Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order," Romney said of the Democratic president ousted after one term.
Obama has tried to portray inconsistency in Romney's position on the merits of targeting bin Laden. Without mentioning Romney by name, Obama has said he has been consistent and if others have not, "let them explain it."
Obama aides said the anniversary of bin Laden's killing is not a focus of the trip. But they do not mind that Obama's mission will serve as a reminder, six months before Election Day.
More than 1,800 U.S. forces have been killed and 15,700 more have been wounded in Afghanistan.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined have cost almost $1.3 trillion. And public support for keeping troops in Afghanistan seems lower than ever.
Obama has 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.
Still, it would have been unusual for Obama to sign the "strategic partnership" agreement without Karzai at his side.
Awaiting war's end
The deal is essential for locking in America's commitment and Afghan's sovereignty when the post-war period comes. Negotiations have dragged as Afghan officials have demanded specific assurances, financial and otherwise.
Both sides have scrambled to get a deal before the NATO conference in Chicago later this month. Negotiators seemed to clear the way for Obama and Karzai by finding agreement over the conduct of night raids and authority over detainees.
The president was to travel back from Kabul to the Bagram base to spend some time with troops.
He was then to give his speech in a straight-to-camera delivery reminiscent of an Oval Office address, before flying back to the U.S. He is expected back in Washington on Wednesday afternoon.
The United States has 88,000 troops in Afghanistan. An additional 40,000 in coalition forces remain from other nations.
Obama has already declared that NATO forces will hand over the lead combat role to Afghanistan in 2013 as the U.S. and its allies work to get out by the end of 2014.
One important unsettled issue, however, is how many U.S. troops may remain after that.
U.S. officials are eying a residual force of perhaps 20,000, many in support roles for the Afghan armed forces, and some U.S. special forces for counterterror missions. The size and scope of that U.S. force — if one can be agreed upon on at all, given the public moods and political factors in both nations — will probably have to be worked out later in a separate agreement.
Support for keeping American troops in Afghanistan is dropping all along the political spectrum, a new Pew Research poll says. And just 38 per cent of people say the military effort is going well, down from 51 per cent only a month ago.