WASHINGTON -- In a dramatic address to Americans broadcast from a military hangar outside Kabul, Afghanistan, President Barack Obama on Tuesday trumpeted the near-end of U.S. military operations in the country, 10 years after the U.S. invasion and one year to the day after he ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden.
Speaking against the backdrop of two armored military vehicles, one draped with an American flag, Obama said that he just signed "an historic agreement" with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai outlining a new, post-war relationship between the two countries.
But before outlining the agreement, Obama reminded Americans why U.S. troops were there in the first place: Osama bin Laden, a topic that the president and vice president haven't been shy about highlighting on the campaign trail.
"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," the president said.
Obama ran through the successes of the U.S. military since the 9/11 attacks and tied them directly to his goal of toppling al Qaeda.
"We broke the Taliban's momentum. We've built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al Qaeda's leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set -- to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild -- is within reach," Obama said. "Here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon."
As for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Obama noted that nearly half of the Afghan people already live in places where Afghan forces are moving into the lead. While international troops will continue to assist the Afghan military, the U.S. is shifting into a support role and bringing its troops home. Some 23,000 U.S. troops will leave by the end of the summer, followed by reductions at "a steady pace" until 2014, when all U.S. troops will be removed, the president said.
As part of the 10-year strategic partnership agreement struck with Karzai earlier Tuesday, Obama said his administration has been "in direct discussions with the Taliban" to tell them they can be part of the transition in Afghanistan if they break with al Qaeda and renounce violence.
"Many members of the Taliban, from foot soldiers to leaders, have indicated an interest in reconciliation. A path to peace is now set before them," Obama said. "Those who refuse to walk it will face strong Afghan security forces backed by the United States and our allies."
In the meantime, some U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan through 2014 to help the country stabilize. "Otherwise, our gains could be lost, and al Qaeda could establish itself once more. And as commander-in-chief, I refuse to let that happen," Obama said.
The president's remarks came hours after he arrived in Afghanistan on a surprise trip. In a conference call earlier Tuesday, senior administration officials maintained that the goal of the trip was to sign the agreement with Karzai. But the visit also gave Obama the chance to meet with U.S. troops and, not coincidentally, to do so on the anniversary of bin Laden's death.
The officials outlined the five components of the new U.S.-Afghan agreement: promoting shared Democratic values; advancing long-term security; reinforcing regional security; social and economic development; and strengthening Afghan governance. The agreement hasn't been made public, but it will be "soon," according to the officials who spoke on background. The agreement also doesn't commit to specific funding or troop levels beyond 2014, when the U.S. will cease combat operations in Afghanistan.
"Those are the decisions that will be made in consultation with the U.S. Congress," said an official.
The U.S.-Afghan agreement has been in the works for 20 months. Obama and Karzai had a goal of finishing it before an international summit later this month in Chicago, said the official, and they agreed it would be signed "on Afghan soil" to show their commitment to building a future together.
A second U.S. official said it was "always the president's intention" to spend the anniversary of the assassination of bin Laden with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"It was an extraordinarily capable group of U.S. service members who carried out that operation," said this official. "What better place to spend time with the troops than with those here in Afghanistan who are in harm's way?"
Before delivering his address to the nation, Obama spoke to U.S. troops stationed at Bagram Air Base.
"We did not choose this war. This war came to us on 9/11. And there are a whole bunch of folks here, I'll bet, who signed up after 9/11," the president said to a group of about 3,200 troops, according to a White House transcript.
The crowd responded, "Hooah!"
"Because of the sacrifices now of a decade, and a new Greatest Generation, not only were we able to blunt the Taliban momentum, not only were we able to drive al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but slowly and systematically we have been able to decimate the ranks of al Qaeda, and a year ago we were able to finally bring Osama bin Laden to justice," Obama said, drawing applause and another "Hooah!" from the crowd.
Back in Washington, Obama's trip drew mixed responses from Senate Republicans.
"I am pleased that the President has traveled to Afghanistan," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement.
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the trip "a significant opportunity" for Obama to hear directly from military commanders on the ground about progress in defeating al Qaeda. He also highlighted the importance of Obama signing the strategic partnership agreement.
"I am hopeful that it will send a signal to friends and enemies in the region that the United States is committed to a secure and free Afghanistan," McCain said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) tweeted Tuesday night that a secure Afghanistan "is vital to natl security & today's agreement signals that US will remain key partner of Afghan people."
But Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, accused the president of making the trip for political purposes.
"Clearly this trip is campaign-related," Inhofe said in a statement. "We've seen recently that President Obama has visited college campuses in an attempt to win back the support of that age group since he has lost it over the last three years. Similarly, this trip to Afghanistan is an attempt to shore up his national security credentials, because he has spent the past three years gutting our military."
UPDATE: 10 p.m. -- Mitt Romney said in a statement released by his presidential campaign:
I am 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. Success in Afghanistan is vital to our nation's security. 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. We tolerated such a sanctuary until we lost thousands on September 11, 2001. Many brave Americans have sacrificed everything so that we could win this fight for a more secure future. Let us honor the memory of the fallen, not only by keeping them in our daily thoughts but also by staying true to their commitment. We are united as one nation in our gratitude to our country's heroes.