Obama addresses nation from Afghanistan after surprise visit
KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) — President Barack Obama, speaking early Wednesday in Afghanistan at the tail end of a surprise visit there, discussed how the war will end and promised a steady drawdown of U.S. troops.
Obama committed to pulling 23,000 troops out of the country by the end of summer and sticking to the 2014 deadline to turn security fully over to the Afghan government. He also said that NATO will set a goal this month for Afghan forces to be in the lead for combat operations next year.
“We will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people,” the president said during a speech at Bagram Air Base.
His trip was Obama’s third visit to Afghanistan since taking office. It coincided with the first anniversary of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan.
Obama said his administration has been in direct talks with the Taliban.
“We’ve made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence, and abide by Afghan laws … The path to peace is now set before them,” he said.
The President promised not to keep troops in harm’s way “a single day longer than is absolutely required for our national security. But we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan, and end this war responsibly.”
“This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end,” Obama said.
Earlier in the trip, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed an agreement outlining cooperation between their countries once the U.S.-led international force withdraws in 2014.
Some U.S. forces will remain in a post-war Afghanistan as military advisers, but both U.S. and Afghan officials have yet to decide on how many troops will continue supporting the Afghan military, and for how long.
At a signing ceremony for the Strategic Partnership Agreement, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
More than 2,700 troops from the United States and its partners have died in the war, the majority of them American.
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 percent of respondents supporting it and 72 percent opposing it.
Obama’s address came nine years to the day after then-President George W. Bush delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, announcing the end of major combat operations in Iraq.