(CNSNews.com) – Campaigning from Kabul, President Obama early Wednesday ticked off the foreign policy achievements that he hopes will give him a second term – an end to the war in Iraq, the phased withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
In an 11-minute pre-dawn speech at the Bagram air base, timed for Tuesday’s prime-time viewing at home, Obama took credit for what he characterized as a significantly improved situation in Afghanistan since he took office.
“Over the last three years, the tide has turned,” he said. “We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al-Qaeda’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-Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild – is now within our reach.”
“My fellow Americans,” the president said later during the speech, “We’ve travelled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq war is over. The number of our troops in harm’s way has been cut in half, and more will soon be coming home. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al-Qaeda.”
Shrouded in secrecy until after he landed, Obama’s visit to the Afghan capital was built around a midnight signing, with President Hamid Karzai, of a painstakingly-negotiated strategic partnership agreement laying out a framework for the bilateral relationship in the coming years.
Obama in his speech pointed to five elements of the strategy – a transition to Afghan security responsibility; the continuing drawdown of U.S. troops; the building of an “enduring partnership” with the Afghan people; pursuit of a “negotiated peace” with those in the Taliban willing to shun al-Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws; and the building of “a global consensus to support peace and stability in South Asia.”
He also confronted two arguments that have frequently been raised and will likely continue to be heard during the election campaign.
“As we move forward, some people will ask why we need a firm timeline. The answer is clear: Our goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and most importantly, many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al-Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that. Afghans want to assert their sovereignty and build a lasting peace. That requires a clear timeline to wind down the war,” he said.
“Others will ask, why don’t we leave immediately? That answer is also clear: We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize. Otherwise, our gains could be lost and al-Qaeda could establish itself once more. And as commander-in-chief, I refuse to let that happen.”
Obama’s visit came amid controversy at home over the suitability of invoking the bin Laden killing in the election campaign – specifically a campaign video suggesting that Republican candidate Mitt Romney as president would not have given the order for U.S. Navy SEALS to raid the compound near Islamabad where the terrorist was hiding.
In background briefings en route to Kabul and again at Bagram, senior administration officials were asked more than once about the timing of the president’s visit – on the anniversary of bin Laden’s death – and the risk of being accused again of politicizing it.
The officials acknowledged that the anniversary was germane to the timing of the visit, but pointed to other factors as well.
One noted that the strategic partnership agreement had recently been concluded after 20 months of negotiations, that Obama and Karzai both wanted it signed ahead of the NATO summit in Chicago later this month, and that Karzai had invited Obama to do so on Afghan soil.
At the same time, the official said, “it is certainly a resonant day for both of our countries given the anniversary of the bin Laden operation.”
“It was already the president’s intention to spend this anniversary with our troops because, of course, it was an extraordinarily capable group of U.S. service members who carried out that operation. What better place to spend time with the troops than with those here in Afghanistan who are in harm’s way?”
‘Dramatically reduced number’ of US troops after 2014
The official also spoke about the path ahead for the drawdown of U.S. troops, currently numbering around 88,000.
“We’ll be down to 68,000 by the end of the summer,” the official said. “There will be steady reductions after that.”
In 2013, U.S. forces will be in a support role as Afghans take the security lead across the country – “and then, in 2014, this process will be complete – the Afghans will have total responsibility for the security of their country.”
“If we do have any presence here after 2014, it would be on Afghan facilities,” the official said in reply to a question about whether any U.S. personnel remaining beyond 2014 would include combat troops.
“These would be [a] dramatically reduced number of U.S. troops, focused on a very narrow set of missions that would be entirely different from the type of combat that we’ve been engaged in over the course of the last decade. This would be counterterrorism and training of Afghan security forces who will have the responsibility for carrying out combat operations.”