KABUL, Afghanistan -- The accord signed by President Obama in his dramatic nighttime visit to the capital of Afghanistan puts a symbolic seal to the endgame of a long and grinding conflict, a pact meant to offer assurances that the United States is not abandoning Afghanistan, but also acknowledging that the height of the Western military presence has come and gone.
Thundering over Kabul in darkness late Tuesday, Obama, making his first visit here since December 2010, traveled by helicopter from an air base north of the capital to the heavily fortified presidential palace to ink a strategic partnership accord with President Hamid Karzai that lays out the broad outlines of U.S. engagement for a decade beyond the completion of NATO’s combat role in 2014.
By design, the agreement is sweeping in scope but light on details. It took months of negotiations for the two sides to agree on a draft version of the pact just over a week ago. Thorny issues, including the size of America's post-2014 force, the bases it will occupy and the degree to which its actions will be overseen by Afghan authorities, are still being worked out.
Only in the last two months were the negotiators able to clear the final hurdles to the strategic pact, handing Afghans greater authority over insurgent detainees and over the carrying out of nighttime raids that for two years have been a key weapon against a stubborn insurgency. Until now, the raids have been U.S.-driven, and some fear that greater Afghan involvement may also lead to security leaks that will compromise the effectiveness of the nighttime strikes.
Landing at Bagram air base shortly before midnight, Obama was greeted by senior American officials, including U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, before traveling by helicopter to the palace of President Hamid Karzai in the heart of the capital. Only two weeks earlier, the capital’s diplomatic and governmental district was paralyzed by a wide-ranging insurgent attack on targets that included Western embassies and the Afghan parliament.
NATO forces have been gradually handing over swaths of territory to the Afghan security forces, a process that is to be largely completed in the coming year. The American force, numbering more than 100,000 at their high-water mark, has diminished to about 88,000, and will continue to decrease over the course of the year, even as U.S. commanders confront a determined enemy, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The strategic partnership agreement, initialed in its draft form late last month, has drawn criticism from Afghan lawmakers and Karzai’s political opponents, who say the Afghan leader has not fully disclosed the commitments made in exchange for billions of dollars in aid. Much of the assistance will be devoted to maintaining the Afghan police and army, an expensive enterprise whose maintenance costs have not been fully covered by commitments from NATO allies.
Originally envisioned at a total of 350,000, the police and army are now expected to number about 230,000 in the long term. Critics fear that the Afghan security forces are not only unprepared to take over the task of fighting the insurgency, but that a drop-off in the size could provide the seed for armed groups that could struggle for power once the Western combat troops depart.
Obama's visit follows a series of damaging and morale-sapping incidents involving American forces. In January, video emerged showing U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead insurgents. In February, the apparently inadvertent burning of copies of the Muslim holy book at the sprawling Bagram air base sparked more than a week of deadly riots. A U.S. Army sergeant is accused of going on a shooting rampage outside his base in Kandahar province, killing men, women and children as they slept, and he now faces 17 counts of murder. In April, photos of American soldiers posing with the bodies and body parts of suicide bombers were published in the Los Angeles Times.
-- Laura King
Photo: President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrive at the presidential palace in Kabul Tuesday night before signing a strategic partnership accord. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press