President Obama marked the first anniversary of the killing of al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden on Tuesday with a surprise trip to Afghanistan during which he delivered the election-year message that a second decade-long war was coming to a close.
"This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end," Obama told a prime-time television audience in the United States from Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, where it was 4 a.m. "The goal that I set to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild is now within our reach."
One year after Navy SEALs killed bin Laden at a compound in Pakistan, the president flew to the Afghan capital in the middle of the night to mark the approaching end of the war started shortly after al Qaeda terrorists based in Afghanistan attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
During a whirlwind visit, Obama signed an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that would allow U.S. troops to remain there after combat forces withdraw in 2014, chiefly to train Afghan forces and target al Qaeda. The agreement promises the Afghan government continued U.S. military and economic assistance.
"We will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains," Obama said. "That will be the job of the Afghan people."
In his address to the nation, Obama noted the failure of the Bush administration to capture or kill bin Laden at Tora Bora in December 2001 and suggested the Afghan war dragged on as long as it did in part because the U.S. went to war in Iraq simultaneously. But he said "the tide has turned" in both war zones during his three years in office.
Obama flew to Afghanistan shortly after midnight Tuesday, and while word of his arrival in Kabul leaked in Afghan media, the White House denied those reports throughout the day. The president's official schedule showed him attending private meetings at the White House.
Obama's aides suggested the timing of the trip was coincidental, that it was determined by the completion of negotiations over the joint agreement. But administration officials did finally acknowledge the anniversary of bin Laden's death.
"For them to say it's just a coincidence is absurd," said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. "It doesn't pass the laugh test to say it's not coordinated."
|U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement|
|- Allows U.S. to keep forces in Afghanistan after 2014 but doesn't commit the U.S. to any specific troop level.|
|- Limits the involvement of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to the training of Afghan forces and targeting of remaining elements of al Qaeda.|
|- U.S. agrees to provide annual military and economic assistance to a country it will formally declare a major ally.|
|Source: White House|
The election-year message of the president's trip was clear, however, and it dovetailed seamlessly with the White House's weeklong effort to draw attention to the successful mission that killed bin Laden a decade after his organization attacked America. Indeed, the White House since last week not only touted Obama's leadership in approving the mission, but suggested his likely Republican opponent this fall, Mitt Romney, wasn't prepared to handle such international emergencies.
Others criticized Obama for politicizing a military mission. The conservative Veterans for a Strong America slammed Obama in a Web video Tuesday for using military sacrifices "to benefit his campaign."
Republican leaders who earlier accused Obama of political grandstanding refrained from criticizing his visit to U.S. troops on Tuesday.
"I think its always good when a president goes to where young men and women are in harm's way," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN.