In a Tuesday speech from Bagram Air Force base, a hub of American operations in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama heralded a turning point in a conflict that has spanned the more than a decade since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Tonight, I'd like to tell you how we will complete our mission and end the war in Afghanistan, the president said, describing how American troops were scheduled to depart the country and hand off authority to their Afghan counterparts. We have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Obama continued .Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.
Obama's words were clearly directed at a war-weary public that has become deeply disillusioned with the war. Majorities of Americans on both ends of the political spectrum believe that the United States should end its involvement in Afghanistan, and a substantial number believe the United States' effort there has been futile from the start.
After initially comitting a surge of tens of thousands of additional troops at the start of his presidency, Obama is now pointing to his efforts to wind down the war. The United States has agreed to give Afghans control over detention facilities and the night raids that had alienated the Afghan public and bred resentment of American troops. While in Afghanistan, Obama joined Afghan President Hamid Karzai in signing a strategic partnership agreement that sets the terms for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Scale-Down Will Not Be Quick Or Easy
But disentangling the two countries will not be a quick or easy process. Although American troops will step back from an active combat role, the agreement commits the United States to years of economic and military support -- unless one of the parties backs out, the agreement would be in effect until 2024.
We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize, Obama said. 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.
By affirming America's determination to guard security gains in Afghanistan, Obama could help inoculate himself against presumptive 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's contention that Obama is ignoring his generals and exiting Afghanistan too hastily.
The agreement promises that American forces will not seek to establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan and stipulates that U.S. forces will not use Afghanistan to launch operations in other countries. But it gives American personnel access to Afghan facilities and commits the United States to train and equip the Afghan National Security Forces while leaving open the door to operations against al Qaeda -- all of which would entail U.S. troops remaining beyond 2014, albeit in more of a backup role.
Congress will be responsible for authorizing funds and troop levels on a year-to-year basis so that Afghanistan can independently secure and defend itself against internal and external threats, the document says, and Afghanistan will officially be designated a major-non NATO ally. But the relationship would not be limited to military backing.
Citing the need to maintain long-term stability, the agreement establishes the United States' ongoing duty to sustain economic and social development projects in Afghanistan, a category that includes everything from energy and infrastructure to management of water and other natural resources.
Afghanistan is already a leading recipient of American financial assistance, although the results of that relationship are mixed: a June 2011 Senate report found that Afghanistan had become heavily dependent on foreign dollars amidst persistent corruption and weak governing institutions. The strategic partnership agreement specifically mentions tackling corruption, fighting human rights abuses and strengthening democratic institutions.
While a resurgent Taliban has long been a source of concern for military officials, the document sets a clear priority by noting that the presence and operations of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan since 2001 are aimed at defeating al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Obama confirmed in his speech that the United States has been directly negotiating with the Taliban, a process that has reportedly been unfolding for months.
We have made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence, and abide by Afghan laws, Obama said. 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.