Let's wrap this thing up, says Obama in Afghanistan
President Barack Obama marked the first anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden with a surprise visit to Kabul and a prime-time speech beamed back to the American public in which he said the end of the war was in plain sight.
Addressing the viewing public back home, and opening himself up to Republican criticisms of electioneering, Obama said that America’s war aims of destroying al-Qaida in Afghanistan were nearly achieved. “The goal that I set—to defeat al-Qaida and deny it a base to rebuild—is now within reach,” he said from Bagram airbase near the country’s capital Kabul.
Framing more than a decade of conflict as being in its final stages, Obama added: “We can see the light of a new day on the horizon — This time of war began in Afghanistan and this is where it will end. With faith in each other and eyes fixed on the future.”
In the brief speech Obama focused on the handover of responsibility for military operations from American and other Nato troops to domestic Afghan forces. He said the shift would ensure US military involvement in the country would end by 2014 apart from small training and counter-terrorism issues. “We will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling in cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people,” he said.
The reason for the visit was ostensibly to sign an agreement reached earlier this month with Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai on relations between the two countries following the withdrawal of most US and other international forces. But administration officials and diplomats based in Kabul also acknowledged the timing coincided with the raid that killed Bin Laden. The al-Qaida leader fled Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks for Pakistan, where he was tracked down by the CIA.
US has ‘broken Taliban momentum’
Obama made only a short reference to the killing of Bin Laden but his speech was notable for focusing more on al-Qaida than the Taliban.
Though Obama said that the last three years of war had “broke the Taliban momentum” in the conflict, he also made it clear that the country would continue to engage in peace talks with them. He said the militant group was being offered a “path to peace” for the future. “My administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban. We have made it clear they can be part of this future if they break with al-Qaida, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws,” Obama said.
But privately the picture US officials painted a picture of Afghan prospects that was not always so rosy. A senior administration official, briefing journalists during the trip, said the security situation in the country was tough-going, even in the light of the new deal.
“This is hard — Whatever we do, Afghanistan will still be the third poorest nation in the world with a 70% illiteracy rate [and] sectarian schisms in it,” the official said. When asked if the Taliban could eventually take over the country, as they did in the 1990s, the official admitted the group would be a force to reckon with in Afghan society for the foreseeable future.
“Do I think there will still be Taliban elements and influence in villages and remote mountain regions? Probably. But that would be true if we were still there for another 10 years because that’s where they live,” the official said.
The speech was the climax to a day of intense security for the unannounced visit. The trip was kept under wraps on security grounds with the president arriving after dark. Security was even tighter than usual, following a series of violent incidents, including a lengthy gunbattle in the heart of the city just over a fortnight ago.
Obama flew into Bagram before taking a helicopter to the heavily-guarded presidential palace. Although the evening quiet in the capital was broken by the heavy roar of many more helicopter flights than usual, as Obama, his team and his military escorts headed into the city and then back out to Bagram, most people in Kabul will only hear of the visit when they wake on Wednesday.
Though ostensibly the trip was a part of Obama’s foreign policy, few observers failed to notice the ever-growing unpopularity of the war with an American electorate the goes to the polls in November. A Pew Research Centre poll last month found 60% of Americans wanted the US out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. In a nod to domestic politics, Obama said it was now “time to renew America” and build a stronger country back home.
The new deal signed by Obama and Karzai in the presidential palace in Kabul sets a framework for the long-term relationship between the two nations after 2014 portraying them as long-term partners. The US will designate Afghanistan a major non-Nato ally, marking the first such designation of Obama’s presidency, the Reuters news agency quoted unnamed US officials saying.
The strategic partnership agreement is 10 pages long and pledges a decade of support, but it sidesteps some of the thorniest questions about the US military presence. Both sides agreed to delay difficult decisions on long-term access to military bases and the status of any US forces that do stay on in Afghanistan. These issues will be negotiated in a separate deal some time before 2014. Talks on the deal dragged on for over a year, initially held up by two demands from Karzai, that he said were critical to restoring national sovereignty; Afghan control of jails and an end to night raids on Afghan homes.
Western officials argued for months that the first demand was not practical and the second could undermine the military effort, but eventually agreed compromises on both. Washington and its allies wanted to have the US-Afghan strategic partnership agreed before a major Nato conference to be held later this month in Chicago where members of the alliance are expected to pledge long-term help to Kabul with finances and military training.—