Obama hails troops, signs agreement on surprise Afghanistan trip
Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN): President Barack Obama thanked U.S. troops for their service and signed an agreement on cooperating with Afghanistan on an unannounced trip there Tuesday, the first anniversary of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan.
“Afghanistan has a friend and a partner in the United States,” Obama said before he and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement outlining cooperation between their countries once the U.S.-led international force withdraws in 2014.
On his third trip to Afghanistan since taking office, Obama also addressed troops at Bagram Air Field. He will make a televised address at 7:30 p.m. ET.
At the signing ceremony, Obama said that neither country asked for the war that began more than a decade earlier, but now they would work in partnership for a peaceful future.”There will be difficult days ahead, but as we move forward in our transition, I’m confident that Afghan forces will grow stronger; the Afghan people will take control of their future,” Obama said.
Addressing a concern in Afghanistan that the United States will abandon the country once its troops leave, Obama said, “With this agreement, I am confident that the Afghan people will understand that the United States will stand by them.”
He later added that the United States “did not come here to claim resources or to claim territory. We came here with a very clear mission to destroy al Qaeda,” referring to the terrorist organization responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Obama’s address came nine years to the day after then-President George W. Bush delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech, announcing the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
Karzai offered his thanks to the American people for helping Afghanistan, and the presidents shook hands after signing the document in the atrium of the King’s Residence, part of the Presidential Palace in Kabul.
Obama warned the Afghan people and, later, the U.S. troops he met with of difficult days ahead. In his remarks at the Bagram base, Obama sounded emotional as he said that soldiers could see friends get hurt or killed as the mission winds down.
“There’s going to heartbreak and pain and difficulty ahead, but there’s a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices you’ve made,” he said.
The security risks in Afghanistan were evident from the secretive nature and timing of the trip. Obama landed in Afghanistan in the cover of darkness, and the signing ceremony occurred in the late evening.
Official: 3 Afghan children killed in insurgent attack
The Strategic Partnership Agreement provides a framework for the U.S.-Afghanistan partnership for the decade after the U.S. and allied troop withdrawal, according to senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the flight.
Specific levels of U.S. forces and funding are not set in the agreement and will be determined by the United States in consultation with allies, the officials said on condition of not being identified.
Noting the anniversary of the bin Laden mission, the officials called it a resonant day for the Afghan and American people.
More than 130,000 troops from 50 countries serve in Afghanistan, according to the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force. The United States is the biggest contributor, providing about 90,000 troops, followed by the United Kingdom (9,500), Germany (4,800) and France (3,600).
The war that began in 2001 is increasingly unpopular in the United States, with the latest CNN/ORC International poll in late March showing 25% of respondents supporting it and 72% opposing it.
More than 2,700 troops from the United States and its partners have died in the war, the majority of them American.
In 2011, the United States outlined its plan to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The move was followed by withdrawal announcements by most of the NATO nations.
Last week, Afghan National Security Adviser Rangin Daftar Spanta and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker initialed a text that outlined the kind of relationship the two countries want in the decade following the NATO withdrawal.
The deal had been long expected after Washington and Kabul found compromises over the thorny issues of “night raids” by U.S. forces on Afghan homes and the transfer of U.S. detainees to Afghan custody.
It seeks to create an enduring partnership that prevents the Taliban from waiting until the U.S. withdrawal to try to regain power, the senior administration officials said.
Obama visited Afghanistan in March 2010 and returned in December of the same year. He also visited Afghanistan in 2008 as a presidential candidate.
A report issued Tuesday by the Pentagon said that sanctuaries for insurgents in neighboring Pakistan continue to be a problem for the coalition forces and Afghan government.
“The Taliban-led insurgency and its al Qaeda affiliates still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan,” the semiannual report said, adding that “the insurgency’s safe haven in Pakistan, as well as the limited capacity of the Afghan government, remain the biggest risks to the process of turning security gains into a durable and sustainable Afghanistan.”
Poll: Many Muslims in Mideast, Pakistan have poor view of al Qaeda
While the coalition is on track to turn security fully over to Afghan control, the insurgency “remains a resilient and determined enemy and will likely attempt to regain lost ground and influence this spring and summer through assassinations, intimidation, high-profile attacks and emplacement of improvised explosive devices,” according to the report.
The report covers security developments in Afghanistan from October through March. It noted several “significant shocks” during that period, including the release of a video of U.S. Marines urinating on corpses, the inadvertent burning of religious materials by U.S. personnel, several “green on blue” incidents in which coalition forces were killed or wounded by Afghan troops and the alleged killing of 17 civilians by a lone U.S. soldier.
However, the report also said that the insurgency has been “severely degraded” by Afghan and NATO combat operations, noting that the “most significant security-related development” during the reporting period was the continuing decline in violence.
After five consecutive years in which enemy attacks had increased, they decreased by 9% in 2011 and are down by 16% so far in 2012.
The report attributed the improvement to the expansion and improved training of Afghan security forces. Afghans partner with coalition forces on 90% of coalition operations, taking the lead on about 40% of them, according to the military.
Along with the insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan, the report noted that Iran is trying to ensure a “dominant, long-term role” for itself in Afghanistan along with the permanent withdrawal of foreign forces.
While much of Iran’s activity involves openly reaching out with economic and cultural support, the report said there also is “covert support, including the provision of weapons and training for various insurgent and political opposition groups,” including the Taliban.