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Obama Makes Surprise Visit to Afghanistan

Obama Makes Surprise Visit to Afghanistan

By Alexis Simendinger - May 1, 2012

President Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan on Tuesday to sign a strategic partnership agreement with the government of Hamid Karzai, to salute the achievements of American forces, and to mark the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's assassination last year during a daring U.S. raid into Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The president plans to deliver a live nationally televised address at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time from Bagram Air Base. The speech will be approximately 10 minutes long, and he will deliver it at 4 a.m. local time.

Against the backdrop of an increasingly caustic re-election campaign and complaints from some conservatives that the president and his campaign team unnecessarily politicized the anniversary of bin Laden’s demise, Obama’s headline-grabbing return to Afghanistan as commander-in-chief refocused attention on the administration’s plans to transition by 2014 from foreign military occupying force to traditional ally.

At a brief rally with military personnel gathered at Bagram Air Base before dawn, Obama shook hands and posed for pictures after warning the cheering troops that risks remain as the war comes to a negotiated close. "I know it's still tough. I know the battle's not yet over," Obama said. "Some of your buddies are going to get injured, and some of your buddies may get killed. And there's going to be heartbreak and pain and difficulty ahead. But there's a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices you've made. And that's the reason, for Michelle and me, nothing is more important than looking after your families while you are here, and I want everyone here to know when you get home, we are going to be there for you when you're in uniform, and we will stay there for you when you're out of uniform because you've earned it. You've earned a special place in our hearts, and I could not be prouder to be your commander-in-chief." 

Obama began his clandestine trip aboard Air Force One at 12:09 a.m. Tuesday, and arrived at 10:20 p.m. local time after a 13-hour flight. He was accompanied on the journey by aides and a pool of journalists and photographers who reported events, for reasons of safety, only when the president’s plane landed. Upon arriving, Obama flew by helicopter to the presidential palace in Kabul after being greeted by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Michael “Mike” Scaparotti, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Darkness afforded needed security for the president’s planes and helicopters, but according to a pool report, administration officials said the timing of events was designed for an optimal broadcast time in the United States. 

Last month, U.S. and Afghan officials completed a draft text of a partnership pact after a year of wrangling with the Karzai government about how best to extricate 33,000 American military forces from Afghanistan while spelling out a long-term commitment to the country’s sovereignty and control, as well as continued U.S. assistance. With the signatures of the two presidents Tuesday, the 10-page draft agreement became final. 

The Obama administration had sought to wrap up the U.S.-Afghan pact before a NATO conference May 20-21 in Chicago. Allies are expected during the summit to commit financial and military training assistance to Kabul stretching 10 years beyond 2014. 

According to a fact sheet released by the White House late Tuesday, the legally binding Strategic Partnership Agreement “commits Afghanistan to provide U.S. personnel access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014 and beyond, and for the possibility of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, for the purposes of training Afghan Forces and targeting the remnants of al-Qaeda.”

Though the pact doesn’t tie the United States to specific troop or funding levels in the future, it does “commit the United States to seek funding from Congress on an annual basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of Afghan National Security Forces, as well as for social and economic assistance.”

The agreement also stipulates that the United States will “designate Afghanistan a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’ to provide a long-term framework for security and defense cooperation.” 

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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