BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (AP) — On a surprise visit to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama pledged Sunday to bring America's longest war to a "responsible end" by the close of the year. He promised a decision soon on keeping a small contingent of troops to help protect gains made over nearly 13 years of combat.
He told troops at this sprawling military base that the war had reached a pivotal point, with Afghan forces assuming primary responsibility for their country's security. By 2015, many of the 32,800 American forces now in Afghanistan will depart.
"For many of you, this will be your last tour in Afghanistan," Obama said as hundreds of U.S. troops inside an airplane hangar erupted in applause. "America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end."
Obama secretly slipped in Afghanistan under the cover of darkness for his first trip to the war zone since 2012.
Obama was spending just a few hours on the base and had no plans to go to Kabul, the capital, to meet with Hamid Karzai, the mercurial president who has had a tumultuous relationship with the White House.
Obama's visit, his fourth to Afghanistan as president, came at a time of transition for a country long mired in conflict. Most of the U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan are withdrawing ahead of year-end deadline. Elections are underway to replace Karzai, the only president Afghanistan has known since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Karzai stunned the White House by refusing to sign a bilateral security agreement needed to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year. But both candidates on the ballot in next month's Afghan presidential election runoff have said they plan to quickly approve the accord.
Obama said the signed pact would clear the way for a "limited military presence" in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
While he did not detail how many troops would stay or for how long, he is expected to announce that decision soon, perhaps during a speech Wednesday at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York.
"After all of the sacrifices we've made, we want to preserve the gains you have made," Obama said. "America's commitment to the people of Afghanistan will endure."