By Amie Parnes and Jeremy Herb - 05/01/12 11:05 PM EDT
President Obama in a televised speech from Afghanistan Tuesday night said the “tide has turned” in the nation’s longest war and the U.S. will soon “see the light of a new day on the horizon.”
In an address to the nation culminating a surprise trip to Afghanistan, Obama touted an agreement signed with President Hamid Karzai earlier in the day to signal a turning point in the war, which has lasted more than a decade.
Obama said the tide of that war has turned in the three years since his election.
“We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al Qaeda’s leadership, taking out 20 of their top leaders,” Obama said in remarks from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan..
“And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden,” Obama said. “The goal I set to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild, is within reach.”
On the heels of accusations by Republicans that he has politicized the one year anniversary of bin Laden’s death, Obama only mentioned the one-time notorious terrorist by name a few times. But he used bin Laden and the anniversary as the centerpiece of his remarks.
“Let us remember why we came here,” Obama said. “It was here, in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden established a safe-haven for his terrorist organization. It was here, in Afghanistan, where al Qaeda brought new recruits, trained them and plotted acts of terror. It was here, from within these borders that al Qaeda launched the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 innocent men, women and children.”
With polls showing most Americans desperate for the war to end, Obama noted that 10,000 U.S. troops returned home from Afghanistan last year and another 23,000 will leave by the end of the summer.
After that, “reductions will continue at a steady pace,” Obama said.
Obama's expected GOP opponent in the general election this fall, Mitt Romney, released a statement more than an hour after Obama's speech that said U.S. troops and the nation deserved to hear from Obama about what is at stake in the war.
Romney, who earlier on Tuesday offered congratulations to Obama on the anniversary of bin Laden's death, avoided specific policy positions in his comments and did not mention bin Laden. But he said it would be "a tragedy for Afghanistan and a strategic setback for America if the Taliban returned to power and once again created a sanctuary for terrorists."
Romney has previously criticized Obama's plans for pulling troops from Afghanistan, while Obama this week has hit Romney by suggesting he would not have ordered the mission to Pakistan to take out bin Laden.
In his own remarks, Obama sought to portray himself as a candidate ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the country grew tired of over the last decade.
“The Iraq war is over,” Obama said. “The number of our troops in harms way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan while delivering justice to al Qaeda.”
The president acknowledged that there will be “difficult days ahead” and that the “enormous sacrifices of our men and women are not over.”
At the same time, he sought to comfort those who would like an immediate end to the war.
“I recognize that many Americans are tired of war,” Obama said. “I will not keep Americans 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,” Obama said.
The president also sought to portray the end of a conflict in Afghanistan as necessary so that the U.S. could focus on struggles at home, something that also puts him in line with public opinion polls.
“As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America,” Obama said. “An America where our children live free from fear and have the skills to claim their dreams. A united America of grit and resilience, where sunlight glistens off soaring new tours in downtown Manhattan, and we build our future as one people, as one nation.”
The agreement signed by Obama and Karzai early Wednesday morning at the presidential palace in Kabul establishes a relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan for ten years after NATO troops transfer security control to the Afghans in 2014.
It also notes that the U.S. military will not maintain its own bases in Afghanistan, and the Afghans agreed to grant U.S. access to Afghan facilities, senior administration officials said.
The agreement does not specify how many U.S. troops might remain in Afghanistan after 2014, but would allow U.S. forces to remain for training the Afghan security forces and for special operations missions that target al Qaeda.
The officials did not comment Tuesday on how large the U.S. presence in Afghanistan would be after 2014 beyond saying any force that remains would be “dramatically reduced” from its current size.
Officials said the Obama administration would not make any announcements on drawdowns until after the 23,000 surge forces have departed in the fall, when about 68,000 U.S. troops will remain.
Defense analysts said that the most important part of the agreement is countering the belief among the Taliban that the U.S. was going to leave Afghanistan and the Taliban could retake control.
“This sends a very different message, and making sure that gets heard in the region and has a psychological impact,” said Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
The partnership agreement also does not discuss how much money Washington would commit to funding the Afghan security forces and police, as Congress must approve the funding, but it commits the administration to seek funding from Congress every year.
“It does lay the groundwork that makes transition possible, but it doesn’t make any promises on either side as to what transition will be,” said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adviser to the Pentagon.
Before the agreement was released, two major issues had to be resolved in the midst of several high-profile setbacks in Afghanistan, including the burning of Qurans and a rogue U.S. soldier murdering 17 Afghan civilians.
Washington ultimately agreed to let Afghans take the lead controlling military detention as well as night raids, which have long been a sore spot for the Afghan public.
Obama left on the surprise trip just after midnight on Tuesday morning and landed in Afghanistan just after 11 p.m. local time after a 13-hour flight.
After arriving, he was greeted by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Lieutenant Mike Scaparotti and headed directly for the presidential palace in Kabul.
Later, in a brief speech to U.S. troops at Bagram, Obama credited the soldiers for helping to bring bin Laden "to justice."
“That could have only happened because of each and every one of you,” said Obama, was making his third trip to Afghanistan as president.
This story was posted at 7:05 p.m. and updated at 8:30 p.m.