KABUL, Afghanistan – President Barack Obama told Americans on Tuesday that after a decade of post-Sept. 11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “we can see the light of a new day” – hours after signing an agreement that extended the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.
Speaking early this morning local time at Bagram Air Base – a year after U.S. Navy SEALs killed al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden – Obama said the U.S. is prepared to shift into a limited support role in the region after combat troops leave in 2014 and begin to “emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home.”
“This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end,” Obama said in an election-year speech that invoked the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and cast him as ending the wars.
However, just hours after Obama departed, as many as six suicide bombers early today attacked a sprawling, heavily guarded compound on the eastern edge of downtown Kabul where international contractors are housed, police and witnesses said.
Independent Tolo TV broadcast video of the scene showing the bodies of dead and wounded lying on the highway amid the smoldering wreckage of vehicles. A witness, who asked not to be identified, said by telephone that he’d counted at least six dead.
The attack underscored afresh the vulnerability of the supposedly tightly secure Afghan capital to insurgent attacks aimed at embarrassing the government and its Western backers and sowing uncertainty among ordinary Afghans about the country’s stability as U.S.-led combat forces withdraw. It served as a sharp counterpoint to Obama’s comments that “over the last three years, the tide has turned” in the battle against the Taliban and their allies.
“We broke the Taliban’s momentum,” Obama said. “We’ve built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al-Qaida’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set — to defeat al-Qaida, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is within reach.”
Obama said the administration has been in direct talks with Taliban members and that they “can be a part of this future if they break with al-Qaida, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws.”
He said many members “from foot soldiers to leaders” have indicated an interest in reconciliation and that “a path to peace is now set before them.”
The president left Afghanistan soon after delivering his speech.
The remarks came just hours after he and Afghan President Hamid Karzai put their signatures to a far-reaching pact that will govern U.S. support for Afghanistan after U.S. combat forces leave at the end of 2014.
Obama, who made the trip to Afghanistan unannounced, and Karzai signed the agreement in front of Afghan and U.S. flags at the presidential palace, just after midnight local time.
There were “warm handshakes all around” and Karzai appeared to be in an ebullient mood, offering profuse thanks to negotiators on the agreement, including U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
After the signing, Obama addressed U.S. troops at Bagram, crediting them with blunting the Taliban, driving al-Qaida out of Afghanistan and decimating its ranks.
But he warned that the conflict wasn’t yet over.
“There’s going to be heartbreak and pain and difficulty ahead,” he told the 3,200 service members gathered at a hangar at the base. “But there’s a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices you’ve made.”
And in a remark that drew loud applause, he noted that it was a year ago that “we were able to finally bring Osama bin Laden to justice.”
A report released Tuesday by the Pentagon detailed the gains in Afghanistan. It noted that thus far this year, enemy attacks are down 16 percent, and the report says recent allied efforts “seriously degraded the insurgency’s ability to mount a major offensive” this year.
Other parts of the report, though, were less certain about progress. It noted continuing “long-term and acute challenges,” that the “Taliban-led insurgency and its al-Qaida affiliates still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan,” and that “the Afghan government continues to face widespread corruption that limits its effectiveness and legitimacy and bolsters insurgent messaging.”
The pact signing and Obama’s address to the troops came one year almost to the hour after U.S. special forces, flying from Afghanistan, burst into the Pakistan hideout of bin Laden and shot him dead. Senior White House officials said the timing was driven by the desire of both presidents to have the strategic partnership agreement signed, in Afghanistan, before a NATO summit scheduled for later this month in Chicago.
White House officials said Obama had long planned to spend the anniversary with U.S. troops and his trip also seemed intended as personal assurance to Karzai that the United States won’t abandon Afghanistan after most U.S. forces are gone.
The text of the new agreement had been kept secret since it was initialed on April 22 by Ambassador Crocker and Karzai’s national security adviser, Rangin Spanta.
The nine-page pact comprises a preamble and seven provisions covering all facets of the future relationship, from a U.S. vow to help defend Afghanistan against al-Qaida and other threats, to Kabul’s commitment to “inclusive and pluralistic democratic governance, including free, fair and transparent elections.”
White House officials said the only post-2014 U.S. presence would be for training and counterterrorism and that there would be no U.S. bases. The pact binds the sides to close defense cooperation to bolster Afghanistan’s security, “combat al-Qaida and its affiliates,” and enhance Afghanistan’s ability to defend itself. Afghanistan would be designated a “major non-NATO ally,” which brings U.S. defense and financial help not normally available to countries that don’t belong to the alliance.
The sides are to negotiate a separate bilateral security agreement governing the number of U.S. troops and Pentagon civilians to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 to train Afghan forces and to provide them with intelligence and logistics support.