Against the political backdrop of the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, a mission that President Obama ordered a year ago to the day, he traveled to Afghanistan on Tuesday to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The agreement, which had been negotiated between the two nations for 20 months, provides a framework for their relationship after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2014.
In a televised speech on Wednesday, Obama laid out his policy for ending the war in Afghanistan while also defeating al-Qaida. The plan involves five elements: transitioning to an Afghan lead by 2014; training more Afghan security forces; building a partnership around regional security, as well as social and economic development; pursuing reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban, only if they break with al-Qaida and abide by Afghan laws; and promoting regional stability by building an international consensus throughout South Asia (particularly neighboring Pakistan).
The president began his remarks by detailing the progress that has already been made over the past three years during which he has escalated military engagement in the region.
"We broke the Taliban's momentum. We've built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al-Qaida's leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders," the president said from Bagram Air Base. "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-Qaida, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is within reach."
Obama also illustrated inroads made on transitioning responsibility for security over to Afghans. "Already, nearly half the Afghan people live in places where Afghan security forces are moving into the lead," he said. "As we do, our troops will be coming home. Last year, we removed 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Another 23,000 will leave by the end of the summer. After that, reductions will continue at a steady pace, with more of our troops coming home."
Speaking on the partnership agreement that he and Karzai signed on Wednesday, he described the shared commitments that it contains. "The agreement we signed today sends a clear message to the Afghan people: As you stand up, you will not stand alone," he said, adding that the support ranges from combating terrorism to strengthening democratic institutions. "And it includes Afghan commitments to transparency and accountability, and to protect the human rights of all Afghans — men and women, boys and girls."
The president was short on details, specifically the financial cost and the numbers of troops who will remain in the region after 2014, but he said that the U.S. would not build permanent bases in Afghanistan, nor patrol its cities and mountains.
Obama ended his speech by acknowledging the service of the troops who have been stationed in Afghanistan for more than a decade. "In an age when so many institutions have come up short, these Americans stood tall," he said of the service members, whom he thanked in a separate speech to them, and during a walkthrough of the base earlier in the day.
"Here, in Afghanistan, Americans answered the call to defend their fellow citizens and uphold human dignity," the president concluded. "Today we recall the fallen, and those who suffer wounds seen and unseen. But through dark days we have drawn strength from their example, and the ideals that have guided our nation and lit the world: a belief that all people are created equal, and deserve the freedom to determine their destiny."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.