US President Barack Obama made a surprise trip Tuesday to Afghanistan to sign a landmark strategic partnership agreement in a midnight ceremony meant to mark the beginning of the end of a war that has lasted for more than a decade.
Obama arrived after nightfall under a veil of secrecy at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. He then flew by helicopter to the presidential palace, where he and President Hamid Karzai signed the pact, which is intended to be a road map for two nations lashed together by war and groping for a new relationship after the departure of US troops, scheduled for the end of 2014.
It comprises a preamble and seven provisions covering all facets of the future relationship, from a US vow to help defend Afghanistan against al-Qaida and other threats, to Kabul’s commitment to “inclusive and pluralistic democratic governance, including free, fair and transparent elections.”
“With this agreement the Afghan people, and the world, should know that Afghanistan has a friend and a partner in the United States,” Obama declared as the Afghan leader looked on. “With this agreement, I am confident that the Afghan people will understand that the United States will stand by them.”
The agreement, Karzai said, opened “a new chapter in the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan,” one marked by “mutual respect.”
After the signing, Obama addressed US troops at nearby Bagram Air Base, crediting them with blunting the Taliban, driving al-Qaida out of Afghanistan and decimating its ranks.
“There is a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices you’ve made,” he told the troops. And in a remark that drew loud applause, he noted that it was a year ago that Osama bin Laden was “finally brought to justice.”
“That could have only happened because each and every one of you were doing your jobs,” he said. “No matter how small or how big, you were faithful to the oath you took to protect this nation.”
The signing and Obama’s address to the troops came one year almost to the hour that US Special Forces burst into the Pakistan hideout of al-Qaida founder bin Laden and shot him dead. Senior White House officials acknowledged that the trip fell on the anniversary, but they said the timing was driven by the desire of both presidents to have the strategic partnership agreement before a NATO summit scheduled for Chicago later this month.
Obama was scheduled to deliver a prime-time, nationally televised address after the signing. White House officials said the unconventional timing of events was aimed at allowing Obama to speak on a schedule convenient for US television audiences.
The trip comes as Republicans have criticized Obama for using the bin Laden raid in a campaign ad that questioned whether Mitt Romney would have made the same call.