Click image to see more photos. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
President Barack Obama on Tuesday paid a surprise visit to Afghanistan, slipping into Kabul under a thick veil of secrecy to sign a long-term partnership deal meant to help bring down the curtain on America's longest war.
Obama, whose trip came one year to the day after elite American troops killed Osama bin laden in neighboring Pakistan, inked the deal in a ceremony with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"Neither Americans nor the Afghan people asked for this war, yet for a decade we've stood together," Obama said against the backdrop of marble columns at the stately presidential palace. "Together, we're now committed to replacing war with peace and pursuing a more hopeful future as equal partners."
Obama warned that "there will be difficult days ahead" as NATO-led troops work to train Afghan forces to combat the Taliban and their al-Qaida and other extremist allies before the alliance forces withdraw at the end of 2014.
The president planned to make a roughly 10-minute televised address to the nation at 7:30 p.m. from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
A White House fact sheet on the long-term pact, fruit of nearly two years of talks, emphasized that the United States did not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan but would operate from Afghan facilities. The agreement also allows for an unspecificed number of US forces to remain past 2014 to train their local counterparts and target al-Qaida "remnants." And it commits Washington to designating Kabul a "Major Non-NATO Ally," a special status that makes it easier to provide military aid.
Obama's trip came as he and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney waged a pitched political battle over how much credit the president should get for the daring Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's fortified compound in Abbottabad one year ago.
The president left Andrews Air Force Base, home to his blue and white liveried Air Force One, at 12:09 a.m. Tuesday morning and landed at Bagram at 10:20 p.m. local time. He then took a helicopter to the presidential palace in Kabul, where he arrived just after 11 p.m. local.
The unannounced trip recalled President George W. Bush's Thanksgiving 2003 trip to Iraq, a cloak-and-dagger operation that saw him sneak off his Texas ranch, fly to Washington and then on to Baghdad with a small group of aides and "pool" reporters. Obama's visit also comes on the ninth anniversary of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech about the Iraq war, a cautionary tale for any president tempted to take a "victory lap" in wartime.
Obama previously visited Afghanistan in March 2010 and December 2010, and traveled to Iraq in April 2009. Bush visited Iraq in November 2003, June 2006, and September 2007, and traveled to Afghanistan in March 2006. In December 2008, Bush visited Iraq and Afghanistan.
The TOLONews website that specializes in news about Afghanistan reported Tuesday, citing Afghan officials, that Obama had arrived in Kabul to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. That report was widely picked up in world news outlets, but it was immediately denied by the U.S. embassy in the Afghan capital as well as the White House. That fed speculation that the president was on his way to Kabul but not actually on the ground yet.Read More »from On bin Laden raid anniversary, Obama makes surprise visit to Afghanistan