President Obama: Done in Afghanistan by year’s end
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
May 25, 2014 12:28 PM EDT
On a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday, President Barack Obama pledged “a responsible end” to American presence in the country, telling a rally of troops that combat operations would be fully over in the country by year’s end.
Standing in a bomber jacket on stage at a rally with some of the 32,000 troops still stationed in the country, Obama told them that they would be coming home soon, with Afghan forces finally ready to take over responsibility and security.
Obama instead spent his time visiting wounded troops at a hospital on the base, and getting an on-site briefing from commanders on the ground, including ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander of American and International Security Assistance Force forces in the country.
“The main reason I took this trip is to make sure that everbody knows as we come into Memorial Day weekend that … we are aware of the sacrifices that so many have made … in Afghanistan,” Obama said toward the close of the meeting, as pool reporters were led into the trailer where they met.
Obama referenced a poster he saw of the Twin Towers as he came into the trailer, reflecting on his visit to the Sept. 11 Museum in New York last week.
“It is a reminder of why we are here,” he said.
He cited progress in Afghanistan, adding, “I will be honest with you, it has gone better than I might have expected a year ago.”
Obama then spoke to the troops after a performance by country music star Brad Paisley, who arrived with the president aboard Air Force One.
Obama did not meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai — or Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani, the two candidates in the run-off to succeed him.
The trip, timed for Memorial Day weekend, was not announced before the president was on the ground at Bagram Air Base. This marks his fourth trip to the country, and first time there since 2012, when he came for just a few hours under cover of night to deliver a speech broadcast back home on the anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
En route to the air base, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Air Force One that the speech comes ahead of more announcements about American involvement in the country, where troops have been fighting since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
The administration is “making some decisions about the future of our commitment to Afghanistan,” Rhodes said, adding that Obama wanted to get a briefing from his commander on the ground and ambassador first.
“It is important for him to come before he articulates a decision,” Rhodes said.
No decisions on a post-Afghan force have been so far, Rhodes said, though adding that the White House did recently host a NSC meeting about the path forward. One major issue holding up that decision: the bilateral security agreement that Karzai has refused to sign, much to the frustration of the administration. Both candidates running to succeed him have said that they would be ready to sign it.
The visit to the troops comes after a week of major criticism Obama’s faced for allegations of misconduct and mismanagement at Veterans Affairs health facilities, giving him an opportunity to visit and be cheered by troops after being attacked for not doing enough to take care of veterans.
Rhodes said the outrage over the VA situation did not “factor into the planning for the trip,” but that while on the ground, Obama would stress the message of support his administration has for veterans.
In his weekly radio address Saturday, Obama urged Americans to remember all the troops who’ve died, but also to pay attention to the needs of those who returned and need care.
“In recent weeks, we’ve seen again how much more our nation has to do make sure all our veterans get the care that they deserve,” Obama said. “Now that we’ve ended the war in Iraq and our war in Afghanistan ends as well, we have to work even harder as a nation to make sure all our veterans get the benefits and opportunities they’ve earned. They’ve done their duty and they ask nothing more than that this country does ours — now and for decades to come.”
And the Afghanistan trip comes just a few days before a speech to West Point graduates Wednesday that the White House says will focus on laying out his foreign policy philosophy, in part focused on the country’s path forward as it winds down the last of the American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.
”As we reach the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it’s a natural point to describe how we see our strategy moving out of this period of war, both in terms of counter-terrorism, and also in terms of our broader priorities around the world,” a White House official said Saturday, in a preview of the speech.
The official said the speech would be about laying out a broader philosophy of foreign policy than the president’s done responding to situations that have flared up over the last year. The vision, the official said, is “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral.”
On Obama’s 2012 trip to Afghanistan, which was also not announced publicly before he landed, the president left so quickly after delivering his speech to avoid being on the ground after sunrise that reporters were left running across the tarmac to reboard Air Force One.
Security concerns remain, Rhodes said, explaining the hushed and rushed nature of this trip.
“It is not the same motorcade, it is not the same footprint,” he said. “We just don’t want to take any risks with the president’s security.”