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Joshua Hersh
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Obama's Afghanistan Speech Well-Received By Afghans Who Want An Enduring American Presence

Posted: 05/ 2/2012 6:39 pm Updated: 05/ 3/2012 12:52 pm

KABUL, Afghanistan -- By 4 a.m. on Wednesday, the helicopters that had spent much of the night hovering low over the homes in the international part of town had moved elsewhere, their sound replaced by the sleepy, early-morning call to prayer.

At that moment, several miles away at Bagram Air Base, President Barack Obama -- who had secretly flown into town just hours before -- was delivering a speech hailing the finalization of a strategic agreement with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, and the start of what he called an "enduring partnership" between the two nations.

It was a speech -- billed as "an address to the nation" -- that was clearly directed at the war-weary American audience watching it in primetime. Its most prominent message was that of a war in its final phases, winding down "at a steady pace."

"Today, I signed a historic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that defines a new kind of relationship between our countries," Obama said. The path ahead, he said, would be "a future in which war ends, and a new chapter begins."

But as they awoke in Kabul to the news that an American president had come and gone in the middle of the night, what many Afghans took from the speech was another point entirely: America, and its military might, wasn't going away anytime soon.

His speech offered "a message of reassurance for the Afghan people," said Farooq Bashar, an Afghan law professor and political analyst. "The Americans created a nightmare for us when they said that after 2014 they were leaving Afghanistan. In coming here, Obama assured the Afghans that they will remain in the region."

The idea that a certain -- mostly educated and urban -- sector of Afghan society urgently wants the U.S. to keep at least some of its forces in the country is one of the more curious conundrums of the war here. It also introduces an added level of complexity to the policy decisions made by a president whose electoral base has grown tired of seeing its young men and women die in distant lands for the past decade.

For the urban elite in Afghanistan, where war weariness is even more palpable, the concern has been that Americans might simply walk away, exiting Afghanistan at the end of 2014 as they did at the end of the Soviet war in 1989, when they left behind an Afghan security force ill-equipped to stop the onslaught of the Taliban.

The White House has said for months that it has no intention of doing this, and often claims that the American-trained Afghan security forces are up to the task. But some Afghans say that without any specifics on American funding or troop levels (in the form of military "advisers"), the message to them has until now been muddled.

"American officials here always say, 'Why does everybody think we are abandoning them after 2014,'" said Waheed Omer, a political analyst and former spokesman for Karzai. "And the answer is that the communication has been terrible. Everybody is busy trying to contradict one another. Some people think the agreement will stabilize the region, and be a signal that the U.S. is here and won't be pushed away. Others think that of what's been made public, the actual issues are not dealt with."

To Omer and others, Obama's appearance in Afghanistan this week put those fears to rest.

"The Obama policy for Afghanistan has not been very strong up to now," said Shukria Barakzai, an outspoken member of Parliament who has often been critical of her country's preparedness to handle post-2014 governance. "This was especially true after they started their exit policy for Afghanistan -- and it didn't seem to come from a position of strength, but a position of weakness. It didn't leave us with the confidence to take over responsibility on our own."

The fact that Obama came in the middle of the night, she added, "didn't matter."

"The point is that he put the final dots on a very challenging document, and we can hope that with that behind us, we will have the confidence to implement a democratic process going forward," she said.

"There have been a lot of doubts about the [strategic partnership] agreement up to now," added Omar Sharifi, an Afghan political analyst and the director of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies. "But I think this visit may have settled a lot of those."

Of course, the good will of Afghanistan's urban elite may not be enough to make a protracted fight worth it for the U.S., not to mention winnable -- and certainly not everyone in the country was happy to hear about the United States' plans for an extended stay.

"The arrival of Obama had a meaning: It means he has come to purchase Afghanistan from its people," said Parliament member Haji Fareed, of Hezb-e Islami, a religiously conservative party with a substantial following in Afghanistan's provinces. "It is a very bad decision by the U.S."

Indeed, it took less than two hours after Obama left town for Taliban militants to deliver their own statement: a suicide car-bomb attack on a guesthouse for foreign military contractors on the edge of the Kabul.

"This delivers a message to President Obama that he is not welcome in Afghanistan," a Taliban spokesman told the Wall Street Journal. "When he is in Afghanistan, we want him to hear the sound of explosions."

If the attack was meant to rock the city, it hardly seemed to have unsettled it. Within a few hours of the siege, Kabul had largely returned to normal business, and at the attack site itself, all that remained were a few police and a macabre scene of young boys collecting scrap metal from the wreckage of a bombed-out car.

Karim Sharifi contributed reporting.

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