NY Times | May 1, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan – President Obama landed here Tuesday, on a surprise visit, to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan meant to mark the beginning of the end of a war that has lasted for more than a decade.
Mr. Obama, arriving after nightfall under a veil of secrecy at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, flew by helicopter to the presidential palace, where he was to meet President Hamid Karzai before both leaders signed the pact. It is intended to be a road map for two nations lashed together by more than a decade of war and groping for a new relationship after the departure of American troops, scheduled for the end of 2014.
Mr. Obama was scheduled to address the American people from Afghanistan on Tuesday evening, which would be the middle of the night in Afghanistan. The address – on the first anniversary of the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan – will give Mr. Obama a new opportunity to make an election-year case that he has wound down two expensive and now unpopular wars, here and in Iraq.
The agreement with Kabul, completed after months of fraught negotiations, pledges American aid for Afghanistan for 10 years after the withdrawal of the last American soldiers. More symbolic than substantive, it nevertheless marks a transition for the United States, from the largest foreign military force in Afghanistan to a staunch, if faraway and complicated, ally.
The agreement and Mr. Obama’s decision to travel to Kabul to sign it are also meant to reassure Afghans that the United States will not abandon them once the soldiers leave, White House aides said. The Karzai government faces a continuing insurgency from the Taliban and the meddling of neighbors like Pakistan and Iran, as well as problems of the government’s own making, like corruption.
The relationship between Afghanistan and the United States has been particularly turbulent in recent months. A United States Army staff sergeant is accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians in March, and a group of American troops mistakenly burned Korans in February. In April, Taliban suicide bombers conducted synchronized attacks around the country, raising new questions about what Afghanistan will look like after American troops leave.
After he and Mr. Karzai sign the agreement and make brief statements, the president is to fly back to Bagram, where he will greet troops before delivering a 10-minute address to the nation on Afghanistan, his first in more than a year. As on two previous visits, he will spend only a few hours on the ground.
Still, the visit is laden with political significance, coming as it does in the thick of an election season at home, just four days before two big campaign rallies that will serve as the symbolic kickoff of Mr. Obama’s re-election bid.
Mr. Obama’s campaign has recently emphasized his decision to order the raid that killed Bin Laden, who masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks from an Afghan sanctuary and drew the United States into war. With Bin Laden dead, along with much of his Qaeda high command, Mr. Obama has moved with increasing dispatch to wind down American military involvement here.
With polls showing a large majority of Americans weary with the war, the president’s aides have debated whether to accelerate current plans, which call for withdrawing 22,000 troops – the balance of the “troop surge” – by September. It remains unclear whether the United States plans to make changes.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has criticized the president for publicly announcing a date for withdrawal, saying that would allow the Taliban to simply wait out the United States. Mr. Romney has said he would make a decision on when to pull out troops based on the judgment of his generals, though at other times, he has endorsed bringing them home as soon as possible.
With heavy coverage of the Bin Laden anniversary, Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama have also sparred over how to interpret the raid. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has questioned whether Mr. Romney would have made the same decision, while Mr. Romney replied that “even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.”
For Mr. Obama, the visit is a chance to meet again with Mr. Karzai, who has had a star-crossed relationship with the United States. On a stop here in March 2010, the president delivered pointed criticism of Mr. Karzai for the rampant graft in the Afghan government. Ten months later, Mr. Obama made a return trip, only to be grounded at Bagram by swirling winds and dust clouds. He was forced to speak to Mr. Karzai by phone, even though the two men were only 35 miles apart.
Though Mr. Karzai has signed off on the partnership agreement, he has frequently expressed frustration with the American presence here, bitterly criticizing the United States on issues like night raids conducted by Special Operations troops, for example.
Hammering out a protocol on the conduct of night raids was one of the issues that opened the door to completing the broader agreement. The pact addresses a broad range of issues, from security to social and economic development. But it does not contain specific dollar commitments by the United States, which had led some critics to dismiss it as less a blueprint than a symbolic gesture.
Signing the partnership agreement sets the stage for a NATO meeting in Chicago next month, at which the United States will try to persuade other NATO members to contribute money to Afghanistan’s future. That could prove tricky, since several of the countries are wrestling with their own fiscal woes.
At a White House meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan on Monday, Mr. Obama praised Japan for being the largest financial donor to Afghanistan, after the United States. Japan, he noted, will hold a donors’ conference on Afghanistan after the NATO meeting, focusing on economic development.
Even with the withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014, the United States is likely to spend more than $2 billion a year to help Afghanistan with its security. Any civilian aid would come on top of that.
Mr. Obama’s trip occurred on the same day that the Pentagon released a report on Afghanistan showing a decline in attacks initiated by the enemy but still “long-term and acute challenges” because of insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan and what it called “widespread corruption” in the government in Kabul.
The report, a twice-annual review required by Congress, cited improvements in the capabilities of the Afghan army and police, which now number nearly 345,000. But despite the relative good news – the report said that enemy-initiated attacks were down 16 percent from a year ago – the review said the insurgency still had the ability to plant large numbers of homemade bombs, stage high-profile attacks, regenerate itself and adapt under pressure.
“The insurgency continues to exert its influence in Afghanistan through alternate methods, including kidnappings, intimidation tactics and robust assassination efforts, as well as messaging at mosques and leveraging the network of familial, tribal and ideological sympathizers to exert their influence in areas controlled” by the Afghan security forces, the report said.
Over the long term, the report warned, “the Taliban retains its goal of overthrowing the elected Afghan following the withdrawal of international forces.”
For the White House, keeping a wrap on Mr. Obama’s travels posed customary hurdles, especially because the trip came on a weekday, when a president typically has a full schedule. He kept a normal schedule on Monday, speaking to a construction workers’ union in the morning and playing host to Mr. Noda at lunch. In the afternoon, he and Mr. Noda took part in a news conference in the East Room, where the president got a question on whether he was politicizing the Bin Laden raid.
Later in the evening, Mr. Obama slipped out of the White House and traveled to Joint Base Andrews, where he and a small circle of aides boarded Air Force One, which took off in secret after 11 p.m. A small group of reporters, including one from The New York Times, were allowed to accompany the president, after they agreed not to report on his whereabouts until his helicopter landed in Kabul.
This article was written by Mark Landler. Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Washington.