American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – After joining Afghan President Hamid Karzai in signing a strategic partnership agreement in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul today, President Barack Obama took to the airwaves at Bagram Airfield to update the American people on the mission in Afghanistan.
The speech from the large NATO base about 35 miles from Kabul was the last event of an eventful night that saw the president fly in to Afghanistan, sign the agreement and meet with American service members.
Bagram is the headquarters for the International Security Assistance Force’s Regional Command East, and is an outpost for the war on al-Qaida. Obama said it is important for Americans to remember why U.S. service members are in such a place. “Here, in Afghanistan, more than half a million of our sons and daughters have sacrificed to protect our country,” he said.
Afghanistan was where Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror group planned, trained and financed the attacks that killed almost 3,000 men, women and children on Sept. 11, 2001. “And so, 10 years ago, the United States and our allies went to war to make sure that al-Qaida could never again use this country to launch attacks against us,” the president said.
American and anti-Taliban Afghan groups had initial success, but bin Laden and his lieutenants escaped across the border and established safe havens in Pakistan. “America spent nearly eight years fighting a different war in Iraq, and al-Qaida’s extremist allies within the Taliban have waged a brutal insurgency,” the president said.
But the tide has turned, he added, and the Taliban’s momentum has been broken.
“We’ve built strong Afghan security forces,” the president said. “We devastated al-Qaida’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set – to defeat al-Qaida and deny it a chance to rebuild – is now within reach.”
The president said the key to completing the mission is transitioning security responsibility to Afghans. He noted that half of the population of the country is already protected by Afghan soldiers and police, and the Afghans are prepared to move into the lead in other parts of the nation. At the NATO summit in Chicago later this month, he said, leaders will endorse a plan to turn security responsibility over to the Afghans in 2013.
“International troops will continue to train, advise and assist the Afghans, and fight alongside them when needed,” Obama said. “But we will shift into a support role as Afghans step forward.”
American forces already have started coming home. In 2011, 10,000 troops from the Afghan surge returned to their bases. Another 23,000 will return by the end of September. “After that, reductions will continue at a steady pace, with more and more of our troops coming home,” the president said. “And as our coalition agreed, by the end of 2014, the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country.”
The coalition is working to train Afghan soldiers and police to shoulder that security burden. This summer there will be 352,000 members of the Afghan security forces. As it stands, Afghanistan will field an army and police force at that number for three years, and then reduce the size of the force.
The United States is building an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, the president said, citing the strategic partnership agreement he and Karzai signed earlier at the presidential palace in Kabul. “It establishes the basis of our cooperation over the next decade, including shared commitments to combat terrorism and strengthen democratic institutions,” Obama said. “It supports Afghan efforts to advance development and dignity for their people. And it includes Afghan commitments to transparency and accountability, and to protect the human rights of all Afghans – men and women, boys and girls.”
Within this agreement, the president explained, the United States will work with Afghan partners to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014: counterterrorism and continued training. “But we will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people,” he said.
The United States is working with Afghan government leaders to negotiate a peace in the country. “My administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban,” Obama said. “We have made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al-Qaida, renounce violence, and abide by Afghan laws.”
Many members of the Taliban are looking at this offered hand, and many already have taken it, the president said. “A path to peace is now set before them,” said he added. “Those who refuse to walk it will face strong Afghan security forces, backed by the United States and our allies.”
Finally, the United States seeks to build a global consensus to support peace and stability in South Asia, and needs Pakistan to be part of the process. “It can and should be an equal partner in this process in a way that respects Pakistan’s sovereignty, interests and democratic institutions,” he said. “In pursuit of a durable peace, America has no designs beyond an end to al-Qaida safe-havens and respect for Afghan sovereignty.”
Working on a timeline provides a sense of urgency, spares treasure and saves lives, Obama said. “Our goal is to destroy al-Qaida, and we are on a path to do exactly that,” he added. “Afghans want to assert their sovereignty and build a lasting peace. That requires a clear timeline to wind down the war.”
Withdrawing immediately, he said, would leave Afghanistan vulnerable to a new civil war and re-establishment of terrorist safe havens. “We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize,” he said. “Otherwise, our gains could be lost, and al-Qaida could establish itself once more. And as commander in chief, I refuse to let that happen.”
The best course, Obama said, is to end the war responsibly.
“My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war,” he said. “Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq War is over. The number of our troops in harm’s way has been cut in half, and more will soon be coming home. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al-Qaida.”
The future is possible, the president said, because of American service members, who have deployed to Afghanistan and other dangerous areas time and again.
“In an age when so many institutions have come up short, these Americans stood tall,” he said. “They met their responsibilities to one another, and the flag they serve under. I just met with some of them, and told them that as commander in chief, I could not be prouder. In their faces, we see what is best in ourselves and our country.”
Obama stressed that America must honor its debts to these service members. “We must give our veterans and military families the support they deserve, and the opportunities they have earned,” he said. “And we must redouble our efforts to build a nation worthy of their sacrifice.”