U.S. President Barack Obama made a speedy, unannounced trip to Afghanistan to sign a strategic pact with Kabul on Wednesday and send a dual election-year message that the United States is winding down the Afghan war but not abandoning the country.
Shortly after he arrived on the first anniversary of al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden's death, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai sealed the strategic partnership pact, which sets out a long-term U.S. role in Afghanistan, including aid and advisers.
The deal may provide Afghans with reassurances that they will not be abandoned when most NATO combat troops leave in 2014.
But Obama warned U.S. troops of further hardship ahead in Afghanistan. "The battle is not over yet," he told troops at Bagram airbase outside of Kabul, where only months ago thousands of Afghans rioted after U.S troops accidentally burned copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
The incident plunged relations to their lowest point in years.
Obama made a point of mentioning bin Laden's death in his remarks.
"Not only were we able to drive al Qaida out of Afghanistan, but slowly and systematically we have been able to decimate the ranks of al Qaida, and a year ago we were able to finally to bring Osama bin Laden to justice," he said to cheers.
Obama met Karzai at his walled garden palace in Kabul, where they signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement.
"The wages of war have been great for both our nations," Obama told Karzai.
"By signing this document, we close the last 10 years and open a new season of equal relations," Karzai said in a statement after the meeting.
To American voters in an election year, Obama sought to signal that the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, and to remind them of the May 2011 special forces raid in Pakistan that killed bin Laden.
Within Afghanistan, the palace signing ceremony may be aimed at sending a message to the Taliban and other groups that they cannot wait out 130,000 foreign troops and retake power.
It could help push the insurgency's leaders to re-enter reconciliation talks with both the U.S. and Afghan governments.
Still tough, election year
A senior U.S. official cautioned that no matter what pacts are signed, "Afghanistan is still going to be the third poorest country in the world with a 70 percent literacy rate and some huge sectarian schisms."
"This is still going to be tough," the official said, adding that the expectation was that the Afghan government will be able to maintain basic security.
That skepticism is shared by the European Union's ambassador to Kabul, who said earlier on Tuesday that Western aid that has been poured into Afghanistan will have a limited impact as long as governance remained poor and corruption widespread.
Afghanistan's government doesn't seem to grasp the magnitude of major challenges just two years ahead of the pullout, Vygaudas Usackas told Reuters in an interview.
"The Afghans have to be in the driving seat," he said. "Probably we made them complacent."
As he fights for his re-election, Obama is seeking to portray his foreign policy record as a success.
His campaign has made bin Laden's death a key part of that argument, and the president's visit to the country where militants hatched the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States will reinforce that message.
It also opens him up to criticism from Republicans, who say Obama has politicized bin Laden's death.
Republican Mitt Romney, Obama's likely opponent in the November election, has criticized Obama's handling of Afghanistan, saying the timeline for a withdrawal will only embolden militants and could leave the country vulnerable to a return to power of the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan prior to the U.S.-led invasion.
The agreement does not specify whether a reduced number of U.S troops - possibly special forces - and advisers will remain behind after NATO's 2014 withdrawal deadline.
That issue will be dealt with in a separate status of forces agreement expected to take another year to conclude.
Obama was expected to make an address about the Afghanistan war to Americans at 7:30 P.M. EDT (2330 GMT).
The speech will focus on the partnership pact and emphasize his plans to wind down the costly and unpopular Afghanistan war in which nearly 3,000 U.S. and NATO soldiers have died since the Taliban was ousted in 2001.
Large parts of central Kabul surrounding Karzai's palace were locked down for the Obama's arrival, with police sealing off streets around the city's walled Green Zone, home to most embassies and NATO's Afghanistan headquarters.
Insurgents staged coordinated attacks in the same area only weeks before, paralyzing the capital's center and diplomatic area for 18 hours. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the
attacks, but U.S. and Afghan officials blamed the militant Haqqani network.
After a U.S. troop surge that Obama ordered in late 2009, U.S. and NATO forces have managed to weaken Taliban militants, but the movement is far from defeated.
The White House wants to paint Obama's strategy in Afghanistan as successful, despite continued violence which has raised concerns about the country's long-term stability.
Obama plans to host NATO leaders in Chicago on May 20-21 for a summit to discuss the specifics of the troop withdrawals and look at ways to ensure that Afghanistan does not collapse into civil war when foreign combat forces leave.
The strategic partnership agreement could also help paper over strains in ties between Washington and Kabul which have been hurt by a number of incidents involving U.S. soldiers that have infuriated public opinion, including the massacre of 17 civilians in Kandahar and the Koran burnings.
Negotiations on the Strategic Partnership Agreement were delayed for months until U.S. negotiators agreed to Karzai's demands to hand over operation of American prisons in the country to Afghan control and give leadership of night raids on homes to Afghan forces.
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