President Obama addressed the American public on national television from Kabul, Afghanistan Tuesday on the one-year anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, describing a plan to “finish the job we started in Afghanistan, and end this war responsibly.”
His remarks pointed to a near future in which the two generation-defining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan launched in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were finally over.
“My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war,” he said, standing in front of a pair of desert-camouflaged military vehicles. “Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq War is over. The number of our troops in harm’s 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.”
Obama, who arrived for a surprise visit earlier in the day Tuesday, outlined a newly signed agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that will allow U.S. forces to work in concert with the Afghan military past their scheduled 2014 withdrawal. But Obama assured that “we will not build permanent bases in this country nor will we be patrolling in cities and mountains.” American troop levels are currently undergoing a phased drawdown after Obama ordered a surge early in his presidency to help the fledgling Afghan government build up strength.
According to Obama, “the goal that I set to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild is now within our reach,” thanks to a series of operations culminating in Bin Laden’s death that devastated the terrorist’s leadership. Still, he warned of “difficult days ahead” while the military protects its gains in Afghanistan
Obama described a five-point strategy that he said would ensure a secure Afghanistan with the capability to deny al Qaeda a safe haven from which to plot their attacks. Elements of the plan included a transition to U.S.-trained Afghan forces taking over combat operations and negotiations with Taliban forces in which they would agree to renounce violence and any ties to al Qaeda and accept the legitimacy and laws of the Afghan government.
“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 towers in downtown Manhattan, and we build our future as one people, as one nation.”
Obama’s visit and address comes as his re-election campaign is engaged in an effort to claim credit for the raid that killed bin Laden’s death and raise doubts about whether Republican rival Mitt Romney would have ordered the mission. Romney insists that “even Jimmy Carter” would have taken out bin Laden if given the opportunity, and Republicans have objected fiercely to the Democratic attacks. Nonetheless, some of his fiercest Republican critics, most notably John McCain, told reporters ahead of his televised speech that they approved of Obama thanking the troops in person on an important date in military history.
A senior administration official swatted down a question from a reporter on whether the Afghan trip represented “craven politics,” saying on a conference call before Obama’s address that the White House and Afghan President Hamid Karzai had long planned to sign a status agreement ahead of a May 20 NATO summit in Chicago. Doing so in Afghanistan, marking the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death, was a natural choice, the official said. The official noted that the date was “resonant” not only for Americans, but for Afghans for whom the terrorist leader and his Taliban hosts “brought great suffering.”
Watch video of Obama’s address:
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.