President Obama slipped into Afghanistan late Tuesday night and marked the first anniversary of the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden by signing a strategic agreement that narrows the U.S. military mission there while codifying long-term U.S. support for the government in Kabul.
In a televised address from Bagram Air Base, Obama said it was time to transition U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, noting that the Taliban's momentum has been slowed, Afghan security forces have been built up and bin Laden and much of al-Qaida's top leadership has been taken out.
"Over the last three years, the tide has turned," Obama said. "The goal that I set -- to defeat al-Qaida, and deny it a chance to rebuild -- is within reach."
More than a decade after bin Laden's deputies carried out the 9/11 attacks, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed the agreement before dawn Wednesday in Afghanistan. As has been common practice for presidential visits to war zones in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, the visit was kept under wraps until after Obama landed for security concerns.
The deal doesn't include specifics about how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after the U.S. combat role ends in 2014, but the agreement specifically allows the U.S. to stage troops inside the country to train Afghan forces and carry out limited counterterrorism operations targeting al-Qaida presence inside Afghanistan. The pact also calls for the administration to request money from Congress annually to pay for training of Afghan troops and other programs, but it doesn't set funding levels.
The Afghanistan visit -- the third of Obama's presidency -- came as presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and GOP lawmakers have accused Obama of politicizing the death of bin Laden. A senior administration official denied that the Afghanistan visit was timed to benefit Obama politically. The official, who briefed reporters ahead of Obama's speech on the condition of anonymity, noted that Afghan and U.S. officials have been negotiating a settlement for nearly 20 months. Both Karzai and Obama had set the goal of having a deal in place before this month's NATO summit in Chicago.
In a statement late Tuesday, Romney avoided politics, saying he is "pleased that President Obama has returned to Afghanistan. Our troops and the American people deserve to hear from our President about what is at stake in this war."
Obama paid tribute to U.S. servicemembers during his whirlwind visit and acknowledged they've paid a steep price to fight the war. More than 1,800 U.S. servicemembers have been killed during the war.
"I know the battle is not yet over," Obama told troops in a speech at Bagram. "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."