KABUL

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A soldier waves to his family as the Montana Army National Guard 484th MP Company departs from Edwards Jet Center in Billings, Mont. on Tuesday. The unit is headed to Afghanistan, where they may be one of the last companies to serve as troops, as opposed to military advisers over the next 10 years.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. and Afghanistan reached a deal Sunday on a long-delayed strategic partnership agreement that ensures Americans will provide military and financial support for at least a decade beyond 2014, the deadline for most foreign forces to withdraw.

The pact is key to the U.S. exit strategy in Afghanistan because it provides guidelines for any American forces who remain after the withdrawal deadline and for financial help to the impoverished country and its security forces.

For the Afghan government, it is a way to show its people that their U.S. allies are not just walking away.

“Our goal is an enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability and prosperity and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating al-Qaida and its extremist affiliates,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Gavin Sundwall. “We believe this agreement supports that goal.”

After 10 years of U.S.-led war, insurgents linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida remain a threat and as recently as a week ago, launched a large-scale attack on the capital Kabul and three other cities.

The draft agreement was worked out and initialed by Afghan National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. It must still be reviewed in both countries and signed afterward by the Afghan and American presidents.

U.S. forces have already started pulling out of Afghanistan, and the majority of combat troops are scheduled to depart by the end of 2014. But the U.S. is expected to maintain a large presence in the country for years after, including special forces, military trainers and government-assistance programs.

Neither Afghan nor U.S. officials would comment on the details of the agreement. A Western official said it outlines a strategic partnership for 10 years beyond 2014.

White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said President Barack Obama expects to sign the document before a NATO summit next month. Many had started to worry that Karzai and Obama would miss that goal as talked dragged on and Karzai continued to announce new demands.

The final document is likely to be short on specifics. U.S. officials involved in the negotiations have said previously that the strategic partnership will provide a framework for future relations, but that details of how U.S. forces operate in the country will come in a later agreement.

The initialing ceremony means that the text of the document is now locked in. But the countries will have to go through their own internal review processes, Sundwall said.

“For the United States, that will mean interagency review, consultation with Congress as appropriate and final review by the president,” Sundwall said.

In Afghanistan, the agreement will have to be approved by parliament. The Afghan foreign minister will brief Afghan lawmakers about the document Monday, the Afghan president’s statement said.

Printed on Monday, April 23, 2012 as: US, Afghanistan sign pact to end occupation by 2014

Afgan special forces on top of a building previosly occupied by militants in Kabul, Afghanistan on Monday. Insurgents were earlier holed up in the building but were overcome by heavy gunfire.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — For Taliban militants and U.S. strategists alike, all roads in this impoverished country of mountain passes, arid deserts and nearly impassable goat tracks lead to this ancient capital of 3 million people nestled in a high and narrow valley.

The Taliban made their intentions clear over the weekend, mounting spectacular coordinated attacks that spawned an 18-hour battle with Afghan and NATO forces. And now, the U.S. is gearing up for what may be the last major American-run offensive of the war — a bid to secure the approaches to the city.

While bombings and shootings elsewhere in Afghanistan receive relatively little attention, attacks in the capital alarm the general population, undermine the government’s reputation and frighten foreigners into fleeing the country. That’s why insurgents on Sunday struck locations that were so fortified they could cause little or no damage, including the diplomatic quarter, the parliament and a NATO base.

“These are isolated attacks that are done for symbolic purposes, and they have not regained any territory,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.

The U.S.-led spring offensive, expected to begin in the coming weeks, may be NATO’s last chance to shore up Kabul’s defenses before a significant withdrawal of combat troops limits its options. The focus will be regions that control the main access routes, roads and highways into Kabul from the desert south and the mountainous east. These routes are used not only by militants but by traders carrying goods from Pakistan and Iran.

The strategy involves clearing militants from provinces such as Ghazni, just south of the capital. The pivotal region links Kabul with the Taliban homeland in the south and provinces bordering Pakistan.

NATO, under U.S. command, will also conduct more operations in eastern provinces such as Paktika and Paktia that are considered major infiltration routes to the capital from insurgent safe havens in Pakistan.

Afghan and U.S. officials blamed the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which is part of the Taliban and has close links with al-Qaida, for the weekend attacks that left 36 insurgents, eight policemen and three civilians dead in Kabul and three eastern provinces. But Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said officials have not concluded whether the attacks emanated out of Pakistan.

Declining numbers of international troops in the coming months are also forcing coalition forces to focus less on remote and thickly populated places such as eastern Nuristan. They hope to move responsibility for those areas to the Afghan security forces.

Coalition forces last summer made gains in traditional Taliban strongholds such as Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south, areas they must now hold with fewer troops. By September, as many as 10,000 U.S. Marines are scheduled to leave Helmand and hand over the lead for security to Afghan forces in the former Taliban stronghold.

“It’s going to be a very busy summer,” Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander, said recently. “The campaign will balance the drawdown of the surged forces with the consolidation of our holdings in the south, continued combat operations” and an effort to push Afghan security forces into the lead.

The U.S. this month finished moving the 1st brigade of the 82nd Airborne into Ghazni to help clear out a Taliban stronghold in Andar district. It could be one of the largest remaining American clearing operations of the war.

It is not known when that operation will take place, but Ghazni is located at a key chokepoint with the country’s main highway from the south to Kabul running through it. The highway runs just past Andar district.

“If you secure Andar, you have secured Ghazni, and you have secured Afghanistan,” the governor of Ghazni, Musa Khan, told U.S. forces last week at a handover ceremony with departing Polish troops.

Eliminating the Ghazni problem is an important part of the plan to transition security responsibility from foreign forces to the nascent Afghan National Security Forces.

After September, the U.S.-led coalition may not have enough troops on the ground for such large-scale operations and will increasingly have to depend on the Afghans to take the lead.

The U.S.-led coalition is keen to show that the 330,000-strong Afghan forces are capable of filling in a vacuum left by the withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. forces by the end of September. It also wants to use them more and more in operations against insurgent forces in key battlegrounds such as the east.

Last week Afghan forces carried out an operation in eastern Nuristan, a Taliban stronghold, with only support from coalition forces.

“This was yet another example of the successful transition we have been seeing throughout the past year, as the ANSF are planning, leading and executing very productive combat operations against the insurgency,” Allen said. “We expect to see more of these types of successful ANSF-led operations as we progress further into the spring and summer,” he added.

Afghan forces are to peak at 352,000 by the end of the year and are expected to take over much of the fighting as the U.S. draws down an additional 23,000 troops to 68,000 by the end of September. U.S. troop levels reached a high of about 100,000 last year.

Estimates of the Taliban fighting force hover around 25,000. The Afghan army and police are now in charge of security for areas home to half the nation’s population, with coalition forces in a support role. The coalition hopes to keep handing over control until Afghan forces are fully in charge by the end of 2013, with all combat troops scheduled to withdraw from the country by the end of 2014.

The U.S. may retain a small number of forces past that date to help train and mentor the Afghan army and help with counterterrorism efforts.

There is very little appetite in Western countries for keeping troops in Afghanistan, but U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Sunday’s attack shows the danger of withdrawing international forces too quickly.

“There’s a very dangerous enemy out there with capabilities and with safe havens in Pakistan. To get out before the Afghans have a full grip on security, which is a couple of years out, would be to invite the Taliban, Haqqani, and al-Qaida back in and set the stage for another 9/11,” Crocker said.

Published on Tuesday, April 17, 2012 as: US nears final Afghan offesnsive

Afghan security forces arrive at the scene of an anti-U.S. demonstration at a NATO military base in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — Demonstrators hurled grenades at a U.S. base in northern Afghanistan, and a gun battle left two Afghans dead and seven NATO troops injured Sunday in the escalating crisis over the burning of Muslim holy books at an American airfield.

More than 30 people have been killed, including four U.S. troops, in six days of unrest. Still, the top U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan said the violence would not change Washington’s course.

“Tensions are running very high here, and I think we need to let things calm down, return to a more normal atmosphere, and then get on with business,” Ambassador Ryan Crocker told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“This is not the time to decide that we’re done here,” he said. “We have got to redouble our efforts. We’ve got to create a situation in which al-Qaida is not coming back.”

The attack on the base came a day after two U.S. military advisers — a lieutenant colonel and a major — were found dead after being shot in the head in their office at the Interior Ministry in the heart of the capital. The building is one of the city’s most heavily guarded buildings, and the slayings raised doubts about safety as coalition troops continue their withdrawal.

The incident prompted NATO, Britain and France to recall hundreds of international advisers from all Afghan ministries in the capital. The advisers are key to helping improve governance and preparing security forces to take on more responsibility.

A manhunt was under way for the main suspect in the shooting — an Afghan man who worked as a driver for an office on the same floor as the advisers who were killed, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said. He did not provide further details about the suspect or his possible motive.

The Taliban claimed that the shooter was one of their sympathizers and that an accomplice had helped him get into the compound to kill the Americans in retaliation for the Quran burnings.

Afghanistan’s defense and interior ministers were to visit Washington this week, but they called off the trip to consult with other Afghan officials and religious leaders on how to stop the violence, Pentagon press secretary George Little said. The Afghan officials had planned to meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.The protesters in Kunduz province in the north threw hand grenades to express their anger at the way some Qurans and other Islamic texts were disposed of in a burn pit last week at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul.

President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have apologized for the burnings, which they said were a mistake. But their apologies have not quelled the anger of Afghans, who say the incident illustrates foreigners’ disrespect for their culture and religion.

Last week, during a protest in Nangarhar province in the east, two other U.S. troops were killed when an Afghan soldier turned his gun on them.

In Sunday’s protest in Kunduz, thousands of protesters tried to enter the district’s largest city. Armed individuals in the crowd fired on police and threw grenades at the U.S. base on the city outskirts, said Amanuddin Quriashi, administrator in Imam Sahib.

Seven NATO troops were wounded by the grenade. One protester was killed by troops firing from the U.S. base, and another was killed by Afghan police, Quriashi said.

A NATO spokesman said an explosion occurred outside the base, but that the grenades did not breach its defenses.

In a televised address to the nation, Afghan President Hamid Karzai renewed his calls for calm. Karzai did not mention the killings at the ministry in his opening remarks but when a reporter asked, he said he was “saddened” by their deaths.

He said the unprecedented recall of advisers was understandable, calling it “a temporary step at a time when the people of Afghanistan are angry over the burning of the holy Quran.”

Members of the international military coalition described the removal of advisers as a temporary security measure, stressing that they did not expect it to affect partnerships with the Afghans.

“We continue to move forward and stand by our Afghan partners in this campaign. We will not let this divide the coalition,” said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the international force.

Germany has withdrawn troops early from an outpost in northern Afghanistan because of the Quran protests.

In Berlin, Defense Ministry spokesman Stefan Paris said late last week that the German military, which handed over security responsibility for the Taloqan area to Afghan authorities on Feb. 15, originally planned to shut down its base there altogether in late March. But the regional commander decided to pull the remaining 50 German troops back to a large base in Kunduz because of nearby demonstrations.

An Afghan protester gestures towards a US soldier in front of the US base of Bagram during an anti US demonstration in Bagram north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012. More than 2,000 angry Afghans, some firing guns in the air, protested on Tuesday against the improper disposal and burning of Qurans and other Islamic religious materials at an American air base in Bagram north of Kabul.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. apologized Tuesday for the burning of Muslim holy books that had been pulled from the shelves of a detention center library adjoining a major base in eastern Afghanistan because they contained extremist messages or inscriptions.

The White House echoed military officials in saying the burning of Qurans and other Islamic reading material that had been tossed in a pile of garbage was an accident.

But more than 2,000 Afghans protested the incident outside the Bagram Air Base that stoked rising anti-foreign sentiment and fueled Afghan claims that foreign troops disrespect their culture and Islamic religion even as the Americans and other NATO forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014.

Demonstrators who gathered outside Bagram Air Field, one of the largest U.S. bases in Afghanistan, shouted, “Die, die, foreigners!” Some fired rifles into the air. Others threw rocks at the gate of the base and set tires on fire.

U.S. Gen. John Allen, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the books had been mistakenly given to troops to be burned at a garbage pit at Bagram, a sprawling U.S. military base north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

“It was not a decision that was made because they were religious materials,” Allen said. “It was a mistake. It was an error. The moment we found out about it we immediately stopped and we intervened.”

The Quran is the most sacred object in the daily lives of Muslims and burning it is considered an offense against God. The Quran is so important in the faith that Islamic teaching spells out how it should be handled, including directing anyone who touches it to be in a state of ritual purity. Muslims can only dispose of Qurans in very specific ways, including burning or burying those that have been damaged or corrupted to prevent God’s word from being defiled.

A Western military official with knowledge of the incident said it appeared that the Qurans and other Islamic readings in the library were being used to fuel extremism, and that detainees at Parwan Detention Facility, which adjoins Bagram, were writing on the documents to exchange extremist messages. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

The military official said that several hundred Islamic publications, including Qurans, were removed from the library. Some of the publications had extremist content; others had extremist messages written on their pages by detainees, the official said. The official said the documents were charred and burnt, but none of them were destroyed.

“We will look into the reason those materials were gathered,” Allen said. “We will look into the manner in which the decision was made to dispose of them in this manner.”

Allen issued a new directive ordering all coalition forces in Afghanistan to complete training in the proper handling of religious materials no later than March 3. The training will include the identification of religious materials, their significance, correct handling and storage, he said.

The White House also apologized, with press secretary Jay Carney saying it was a “deeply unfortunate incident” that doesn’t reflect the respect the U.S. military has for the religious practices of the Afghan people. Carney did not address details about what occurred.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta added his voice, saying he disapproved of the conduct. He promised to review the results of the coalition’s investigation to ensure that all steps are taken to prevent it from happening again.

In a statement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the incident and appointed a delegation to investigate. He said initial reports were that four Qurans were burned.

Early Tuesday, as word of the incident spread, about 100 demonstrators gathered outside the base in Parwan province. As the crowd grew, so did the outrage.

One protester, Mohammad Hakim, said if U.S. forces can’t bring peace to Afghanistan, they should go home.

“They should leave Afghanistan rather than disrespecting our religion, our faith,” Hakim said. “They have to leave and if next time they disrespect our religion, we will defend our holy Quran, religion and faith until the last drop of blood has left in our body.”

Ahmad Zaki Zahed, chief of the provincial council, said U.S. military officials took him to a burn pit on the base where 60 to 70 books, including Qurans, were recovered. The books were used by detainees once incarcerated at the base, he said.

“Some were all burned. Some were half-burned,” Zahed said, adding that he did not know exactly how many Qurans had been burned.

Zahed said five Afghans working at the pit told him that the religious books were in the garbage that two soldiers with the U.S.-led coalition transported to the pit in a truck Monday night. When they realized the books were in the trash, the laborers quickly worked to recover them, he said.

“The laborers there showed me how their fingers were burned when they took the books out of the fire,” he said.Afghan Army Gen. Abdul Jalil Rahimi, the commander of a military coordination office in the province, said he and other officials met with protesters, tribal elders and clerics to try to calm their emotional response. “The protesters were very angry and didn’t want to end their protest,” he said.

Later, however, the protesters ended the rally and said they would send 20 representatives from the group to Kabul to talk with Afghan parliamentarians and demanded a meeting with Karzai, Rahimi said.

The governor’s office in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan called the incident a “shameful move by some stupid individuals.”

Zia Ul Rahman, deputy provincial police chief, said between 2,000 and 2,500 protesters demonstrated at the base.

“The people are very angry. The mood is very negative,” Rahman said while the rally was going on. “Some are firing hunting guns in the air, but there have been no casualties.”

Police said a similar protest on Tuesday just east of Kabul ended peacefully.

In April 2011, Afghans protesting the burning of a Quran by a Florida pastor turned deadly when gunmen in the crowd stormed a U.N. compound in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and killed three staffers and four Nepalese guards.

Also on Tuesday, NATO said four NATO service members were killed in southern Afghanistan — three in a roadside bombing and one in a non-battle related injury. The international military coalition did not give any other details about their deaths. So far this year, 47 NATO service members have been killed in Afghanistan.

A man is comforted by relatives outside of a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday. A suicide bomber struck a crowd of Shiite worshippers in a wave of violence against the minority Islamic sect.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — In Afghanistan’s first major sectarian assault since the fall of the Taliban regime a decade ago, a suicide bomber slaughtered 56 Shiite worshippers and wounded more than 160 others Tuesday outside a Shiite shrine in
the capital.

The body of a woman, clutching a dead child in each arm, was sprawled along a dirt road littered with shoes, bloodstained clothing, hats and body parts after the blast, which took place as a bombing killed four Shiites in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Taliban condemned the attack, which was reminiscent of the wave of sectarian bloodshed that shook Iraq during the height of the war there. Suspicion centered on militant groups based in neighboring Pakistan where Sunni attacks on minority Shiites are common.

A man who claimed to be from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Pakistan-based group that has carried out attacks against Shiite Muslims, called various media outlets in Pakistan to claim responsibility for the bombing in Kabul. The validity of the claim could not be determined.

Until now, the decade-long Afghan war has largely been spared sectarian violence, where civilians are targeted simply for their membership in a particular religious group. Tuesday’s attack suggests that at least some militant groups may have shifted tactics, taking aim at ethnic minorities such as the Hazara who are largely Shiite and support the Afghan government and its Western partners.

The Afghan Taliban, who are mostly ethnic Pashtuns and nearly all Sunni Muslims, had been attempting to diversify their ranks, expanding to areas outside their southern homeland, recruiting some Tajiks and others and forging an alliance with Uzbek militants in the north in an attempt to present themselves as a national resistance movement.

Unlike some Iraqi militant groups — who consider anybody from the rival community a target — the Taliban have generally refrained from mass attacks against purely civilian targets. They usually focus instead on the U.S.-led coalition, Afghan forces or government offices, although recently the Taliban have been responsible for a rising number of civilian deaths in smaller attacks, according to a U.N. report.

Tuesday’s powerful explosion in Kabul was the deadliest attack in the capital since July 7, 2008, when a suicide car bombing at the gates of the Indian Embassy killed more than 60 people.

In this Sept. 27, 2006, file photo, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan smiles in Tampa, Fla. Infuriated that Washington met secretly at least three times with a personal emissary of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Afghan government intentionally leaked details of the clandestine meetings, scuttling the talks and sending the Taliban intermediary into hiding.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — Direct U.S. talks with the Taliban had evolved to a substantive negotiation before Afghan officials, nervous that the secret and independent talks would undercut President Hamid Karzai, scuttled them, Afghan and U.S. officials told The Associated Press.

Featured prominently in the talks was the whereabouts and eventual release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, who was captured more than two years ago in eastern Afghanistan, according to a senior Western diplomat in the region and a childhood friend of the Taliban negotiator, Tayyab Aga.

The U.S. negotiators asked Aga what could be done to gain Bergdahl’s release. The discussion did not get into specifics but Aga discussed the release of Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and in Afghanistan at Bagram Air Field.

Published reports about the clandestine meetings ended the talks abruptly, and sent Aga into hiding.
Collapse of the direct talks between Aga and U.S. officials probably spoiled the best chance yet at reaching Mullah Mohammed Omar, considered the linchpin to ending the Taliban fight against the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan. The contacts were preliminary but had begun to bear fruit, Afghan and U.S. officials said.

Perhaps most importantly they offered the tantalizing prospect of a brokered agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban — one that would allow the larger reconciliation of the Taliban into Afghanistan political life to move forward. The United States has not committed to any such deal, but the Taliban wants security assurances from Washington.

The U.S. acknowledged the meetings after Karzai, who apparently fears being sidelined by U.S.-Taliban talks, confirmed published accounts about them in June, but has never publicly detailed the content, format or participants.

At the time of the leak, Washington had already offered small concessions as “confidence-building measures,” a former senior U.S. official said. They were aimed at developing a rapport and moving talks forward, said a current U.S. official on condition he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.

The concessions included treating the Taliban and al-Qaida differently under international sanctions. The Taliban had argued that while al-Qaida is focused on worldwide jihad against the West, Taliban militants have focused on Afghanistan and have shown little interest in attacking targets abroad.

As the Afghan war slides into its 10th year and Washington plans to withdraw its combat forces by the end of 2014, a negotiated settlement between the Karzai government and the Taliban has become a stated goal for the United States. It is the centerpiece of efforts by Marc Grossman, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Karzai has launched a separate peace outreach, with the High Peace Council representing numerous political factions.

A month ago, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry and Pakistan’s Army chief of staff Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani met for a marathon eight hours in a Gulf country. Peace negotiations with Afghanistan’s insurgents featured prominently, said both Pakistani and U.S. officials who would not be identified by name because of the secret nature of the meeting.

A U.S. official familiar with the talks said Kayani made a pitch during his marathon meeting with Kerry that Pakistan take on a far larger role in Afghanistan peacemaking. The United States considers Pakistan an essential part of an eventual deal, but neither the U.S. nor Pakistan trusts the other’s motives in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, an unexpected consequence of attempts to find peace with the Taliban has been the rearming of the so-called Northern Alliance, that represents Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities and who were partnered with the coalition at the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom to topple the Taliban regime.

For the warlords that make up the Northern Alliance, Martine van Bijlert, co-director and co-founder of the Afghan Analyst Network in the capital, Kabul, talk of peace threatens their survival.

Warlords-cum-government ministers and vice presidents are watching attempts at finding a peaceful end to the war with trepidation, each wondering “what if it unravels, who is going to come after me? Will I be the weakest in the room? They are feeling very vulnerable,” van Bijlert said.

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama slipped into Afghanistan Tuesday night on the anniversary of the killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and signed an agreement cementing U.S. commitment to the nation after American combat troops leave.

Alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama declared, “Together, we’re now committed to replacing war with peace.”

The partnership spells out the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan beyond 2014, covering security, economics and governance. The deal is limited in scope and essentially gives both sides political cover: Afghanistan is guaranteed its sovereignty and promised it won’t be abandoned, while the U.S. gets to end its combat mission in the long and unpopular war but keep a foothold in the country.

The deal does not commit the United States to any specific troop presence or spending. But it does allow the U.S. to potentially keep troops in Afghanistan after the war ends for two specific purposes: continued training of Afghan forces and targeted operations against al-Qaida. The terror group is present in neighboring Pakistan but has only a nominal presence inside Afghanistan.

He flew to the site of America’s longest war not only as commander in chief but also as an incumbent president in the early stages of a tough re-election campaign. Nor were the two roles completely distinct.
His presence was a reminder that since taking office in 2009, Obama has ended the war in Iraq and moved to create an orderly end for the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan.

In the political realm, he and Vice President Joe Biden have marked the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death by questioning whether Republican challenger Mitt Romney would have ordered the daring raid that penetrated the terrorist leader’s Pakistan hide-out. Republicans are accusing the president of politicizing the event, and Romney is insisting that he would indeed have ordered U.S. forces into action.

At a signing ceremony in Kabul with Afghan President Karzai, Obama said the agreement paves the way for “’a future of peace” while allowing the United States to “wind down this war.”

Karzai said his countrymen “will never forget” the help of U.S. forces over the past decade. He said the partnership agreement shows the United States and Afghanistan will continue to fight terrorism together.

Obama was greeted upon arrival at Bagram Air Field by Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Obama then flew by helicopter to the presidential palace in Kabul, where he was to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and sign the strategic partnership.

Officials have previously said as many as 20,000 U.S. troops may remain after the combat mission ends, but that still must still be negotiated.

The United States does promise to seek money from Congress every year to support Afghanistan.

Obama was to be on the ground for about seven hours in Afghanistan, where the United States has been engaged in war for more than a decade following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The trip carries major symbolic significance for a president seeking a second term and allows him to showcase what the White House considers the fruit of Obama’s refocused war effort: the demise of bin Laden.

Air Force One touched down late at night local time at Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base here.

Media traveling with Obama on the 13-plus-hour flight had to agree to keep it secret until Obama had safely finished a helicopter flight to the nation’s capital, Kabul, where Taliban insurgents still launch lethal attacks.

Obama is joining Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the agreement that will broadly govern the U.S. role in Afghanistan after the American combat mission stops at the end of 2014 — 13 years after it began.

The president’s Tuesday night address was coming exactly one year after special forces, on his order, began the raid that led to the killing of bin Laden in Pakistan.

Since then, ties between the United States and Afghanistan have been tested anew by the burning of Muslim holy books at a U.S. base and the massacre of 17 civilians, including children, allegedly by an American soldier.

Obama’s overarching message will be that the war is ending on his watch but the U.S. commitment to its ally is not.

Politics, too, set the tone for what the White House hoped would be a positive message and image for Obama: the commander in chief setting a framework to end the war while reassuring Afghanistan, on its soil, it will not be abandoned.

Aides said the anniversary of bin Laden’s killing was not a focus of the trip. But they do not mind that Obama’s mission will serve as a reminder, six months before Election Day.

More than 1,800 U.S. forces have been killed and 15,700 more have been wounded in Afghanistan. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined have cost almost $1.3 trillion. And public support for keeping troops in Afghanistan seems lower than ever.

Obama has gone twice before to Afghanistan as president, most recently in December 2010, and once to Iraq in 2009. All such trips, no matter how carefully planned, carry the weight and the risks of considerable security challenges. Just last month, the Taliban began near-simultaneous assaults on embassies, government buildings and NATO bases in Kabul.

Still, it would have been unusual for Obama to sign the “strategic partnership” agreement without Karzai at his side.

The deal is essential for locking in America’s commitment and Afghan’s sovereignty when the post-war period comes.

Negotiations have dragged as Afghan officials have demanded specific assurances, financial and otherwise.

Both sides have scrambled to get a deal before the NATO conference in Chicago later this month. Negotiators seemed to clear the way for Obama and Karzai by finding agreement over the conduct of night raids and authority over detainees.

The president was to travel back from Kabul to the Bagram base to spend some time with troops.

He was then to give his speech in a straight-to-camera delivery reminiscent of an Oval Office address, before flying back to the U.S. He is expected back in Washington on Wednesday afternoon.

The United States has 88,000 troops in Afghanistan. An additional 40,000 in coalition forces remain from other nations.

Obama has already declared that NATO forces will hand over the lead combat role to Afghanistan in 2013 as the U.S. and its allies work to get out by the end of 2014.

One important unsettled issue, however, is how many U.S. troops may remain after that.

U.S. officials are eying a residual force of perhaps 20,000, many in support roles for the Afghan armed forces, and some U.S. special forces for counterterror missions. The size and scope of that U.S. force — if one can be agreed upon on at all, given the public moods and political factors in both nations — will probably have to be worked out later in a separate agreement.

Support for keeping American troops in Afghanistan is dropping all along the political spectrum, a new Pew Research poll says. And just 38 percent of people say the military effort is going well, down from 51 percent only a month ago.

Overall, polling shows, Obama gets favorable marks compared to Romney in handling terrorism, and the president’s public approval for his handling of the Afghan war has hovered around 50 percent of late.

The trip allows Obama to hold forth as commander in chief in the same week he plans to launch his official campaign travel with rallies in Virginia and Ohio.

“We’ve spent the last three-and-a-half years cleaning up after other folks’ messes,” Obama said at a fundraiser last weekend. “The war in Iraq is over. We’re transitioning in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida is on the ropes. We’ve done what we said we’d do.”

Printed on Wednesday, May 2, 2012 as: Obama flies to Afghanistan to sign strategic pact