U.S. President Barack Obama landed in Afghanistan under a veil of secrecy and high security, and signed a post 2014 partnership deal with Kabul, a year to the day after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Obama took a clandestine flight on Air Force One and touched down under the cover of darkness for a swift visit including talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a pre-dawn televised address to the American people at 2330 GMT.
After months of wrangling, the presidents signed a 10-page strategic partnership deal early Wednesday pledging U.S. aid to Afghanistan after 2014 when all NATO combat troops are due to leave after 13 years of costly and bloody war.
Obama called the deal, which will see U.S. trainers and anti-terror forces deployed after 2014, a “historic moment” for both nations after the signing ceremony at Karzai’s presidential palace.
“I’m here to affirm the bond between our two countries and to thank Americans and Afghans who have sacrificed so much over these last ten years,” he said.
“Neither Americans nor the Afghan people asked for this war, yet for a decade we’ve stood together.
“Today with the signing of the strategic partnership agreement we look forward to a future of peace. Today we’re agreeing to be long-term partners.”
Obama, making his third trip to Afghanistan since taking office in 2009, landed at 10:20 pm late Tuesday and was met by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Lieutenant General Mike Scaparotti, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The trip underlined the symbolic power of the presidency at a time when Obama has been locked in a fierce row with his election foe Mitt Romney over claims he is hyping the Bin Laden death anniversary for political gain.
On Tuesday, Obama had publicly questioned whether Romney would have taken the same decision as he did to launch an elite Navy SEALS raid deep into Pakistan to kill bin Laden in his lair in Abbottabad.
Romney’s campaign accused Obama of wrongly exploiting a moment of great national unity for political gain.
Obama who has already carried out his pledge to end the war in Iraq, will campaign for November’s election on a platform to bring all troops home from the Afghan war.
His last trip to Afghanistan in December 2010 lasted only a few hours when he flew into Bagram air base, outside Kabul, to meet U.S. troops but did not meet with Karzai.
Ties between Kabul and Washington have strained since last May amid a series of massacres and incidents by U.S. troops against Afghan civilians as a 130,000-strong U.S.-led NATO force fights a fierce Taliban insurgency.
NATO forces have also suffered a string of deaths as the Afghan troops they were sent to the warzone to train turned their guns on them.
The last of the remaining 87,000 American troops in the country are due to pull out by the end of 2014, some 13 years after the Sept. 11 attacks provoked a U.S.-led campaign oust the Taliban for harboring Bin Laden.
Obama’s top counter-terrorism aide, John Brennan, on Monday argued al-Qaeda was losing its war with the United States “badly” amid a U.S. drone campaign in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, and that its core leadership would soon be “no longer relevant.”
The campaign had left the terror group seriously weakened, and unable to replace wiped-out leaders, he said.
News of Bin Laden’s death broke in Washington late on May 1, 2011, and in Pakistan on May 2, owing to the time difference.
Obama’s visit came amid new speculation that talks are underway again between the Taliban, and the United States.
The Taliban, who last month broke off contacts with the United States in Qatar, said they would not resume talks “until the Americans take constructive steps and fulfill promises which were agreed upon for confidence building”.
Among confidence building measures proposed is the release of five Taliban leaders held at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay.
Obama’s trip appeared to have multiple audiences.
To U.S. voters in an election year, he sought to signal that the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, and to remind them of the May 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed bin Laden.
Within Afghanistan, the palace signing ceremony may be aimed at sending a message to the Taliban and other insurgent groups that they cannot wait out the 130,000 foreign troops in the country, and retake power.
It could help push the insurgency’s leaders to re-enter reconciliation talks with both the U.S. and Afghan government.
But a senior U.S. official cautioned that no matter what pacts are signed, “Afghanistan is still going to be the third poorest country in the world with a 70 percent literacy rate and some huge sectarian schisms.”
“This is still going to be tough,” the official said, adding that the expectation was that the Afghan government will be able to maintain basic security.
As he fights for his re-election, Obama is seeking to portray his foreign policy record as a success.
His campaign has made bin Laden’s death a key part of that argument, and the president’s visit to the country where militants hatched the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks will reinforce that message.