President Barack Obama's dramatic overnight visit to Afghanistan this week will perhaps close a chapter on what has been an increasingly fractured relationship between him and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in their joint war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Obama stepped off Air Force One at Bagram Air Field, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan, in the late evening Tuesday, and was greeted under cover of darkness by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker. The president and his team boarded a waiting helicopter for the short trip into Kabul, where Karzai awaited his arrival at the presidential palace downtown. The two appeared sober and rarely made eye contact as they proceeded through the palace to sign the Strategic Partnership Agreement-which has been under negotiation for months and was announced completed on Sunday.
Obama seemed to quickly look away as the two shook hands. Later the president spoke to the American people, flanked by military vehicles, and said with the newly penned agreement, "War ends and a new chapter begins."
The agreements commits Afghanistan and the United States to "foster close cooperation" on defense and security arrangements. The United States agrees that it will not seek "permanent military bases" in Afghanistan but grants access to those bases through 2014, and beyond, subject to a now to be negotiated bilateral security agreement.
The agreement also pledges Afghanistan to reaffirm "its commitment to protecting human and political rights under its constitution," a controversial position given government persecution of Christian converts and other minorities.
In his speech, Obama said that the United States would withdraw more than 20,000 troops by the end of this summer, with all combat operations led by the United States to end by 2013.
"By end of 2014, Afghans will be fully responsible for their country," he said. "I will not keep Americans in harm's way a single day longer than is absolutely required for national security. This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end."
Beyond daunting setbacks in the U.S. mission this year-including attacks by Afghan soldiers on U.S. troops, the massacre of 17 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier, and the burning of Qurans at Bagram by military personnel followed by a controversial public apology from Obama to Karzai-the agreement is a breakthrough in an otherwise frigid relationship between the two heads of state. During a visit to Afghanistan in March 2010, Obama publicly criticized Karzai over government corruption and continued insecurities. For war-weary Americans, the dress-down may have seemed appropriate, but in Afghanistan it played to U.S. enemies-by making Karzai look bad, Obama gave encouragement to Taliban sympathizers and deepened friction between the U.S. Embassy and top Afghan officials.
Besides smoothing relations with Karzai, Obama now must confront NATO heads, who will hold a summit in Chicago later this month. NATO countries involved in the fight in Afghanistan already have drawn down troop levels and balked at continuing to contribute to the effort to train Afghan national army and police units. But NATO military commanders have expressed open disapproval with the Obama withdrawal plan.
Danish Gen. Knuds Bartel, chairman of the NATO military committee and NATO's most senior military officer, demanded a more concrete timetable for troop withdrawal shortly before Obama's trip to Afghanistan. He also called the situation in Afghanistan "precarious" and said it may not improve during 2013-suggesting that a mid-2013 withdrawal would be "unreal and impractical." European commanders in Afghanistan widely view the 2013 withdrawal as more tied to the 2012 U.S. presidential election than to the realities of the ground security situation in Afghanistan.
Beyond the NATO summit, U.S. officials will quickly begin negotiations over a bilateral security agreement to more closely guide the transition phase from war in Afghanistan. And they will have to go to Congress to secure additional funds for training Afghan forces and continued operations-even with the declared end of war in sight.
Also see Edward Lee Pitts' Web Extra report "May surprise."