President Barack Obama slipped into Afghanistan for a surprise visit Sunday and made clear that the U.S. will likely maintain a limited role here even after its combat mission ends this year and America's longest war comes to a close.
Speaking to troops gathered in an airplane hangar on this sprawling military base, Obama said the war had reached a pivotal point, with Afghan forces assuming primary responsibility for their country's security. But while many of the 32,800 U.S. forces now in Afghanistan will leave in the coming months, Obama said a continued military presence could help protect gains made during nearly 13 years of fighting.
"After all the sacrifices we've made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win and we're going to make sure that Afghanistan can never again, ever, be used again to launch an attack against our country," Obama said.
The war in Afghanistan has lasted nearly 13 years. At least 2,181 members of the U.S. military have died and thousands more have been wounded.
The president appeared optimistic that the Afghan government soon would sign a bilateral security agreement allowing the U.S. to keep some forces in the country to train Afghans and launch counterterrorism operations. He has been considering keeping up to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and said he would announce his decision shortly.
That announcement could come as early as Wednesday, when Obama delivers the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
Obama arrived at Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, under the cover of darkness for his first trip to the war zone since 2012. He spent about four hours at the base and did not go to Kabul, the capital, to meet with Hamid Karzai, the mercurial president who has had a tumultuous relationship with the White House.
Instead, officials said Obama wanted to keep the focus during his visit on the troops serving in the war's closing months. Karzai's office said it had declined a U.S. Embassy invitation for him to go to Bagram to see Obama. Instead, Obama called Karzai from Air Force One on his way back to the U.S. A senior administration official traveling with the president said the two leaders discussed the progress that has been made by Afghan security forces and its successful first round of elections.
Obama told Karzai he would be in touch with him before announcing any decision on the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014.
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 the year-end deadline. Elections are underway to replace Karzai.
He stunned the White House by refusing to sign a bilateral security agreement needed to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year. His decision has delayed U.S. decision making on a post-2014 presence.
But with both candidates on the ballot in next month's Afghan presidential election runoff vowing to quickly sign the security agreement, Obama appeared more confident Sunday that there would be a continued U.S. troop presence after 2014.
The goal is to avoid a repeat of what happened in Iraq after the final American troops withdrew in the closing days of 2011 after the U.S. and Iraq failed to reach a security agreement to keep a small American residual force in the country. In the years that have followed, Iraq nation has been battered by resurgent waves of violence.
The Associated Press