Victory was never mentioned, but in an election-year speech from Kabul, President Barack Obama told war-weary Americans that he was winding down the decade-long fight in Afghanistan.
“My fellow Americans,” Mr. Obama said, speaking in front of flag-draped military vehicles at the heavily fortified Bagram air base, “we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”
While most Afghans slept, unaware of the unannounced presidential visit that lasted only hours on the anniversary of the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Mr. Obama aimed his message half-a-world away to American voters.
“It's time to renew America,” he said. “This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end.”
The president laid out an exit strategy and signed a 10-year-deal with Afghan president Hamid Karzai to provide continuing military support to 2024 while vowing to keep no permanent bases. But the once-heady talk of an Afghan democracy rising where ruthless Taliban theocracy once ruled was absent.
And soon after Air Force One lifted into the Afghan dawn, Taliban insurgents attacked again in Kabul, not far from where Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai met. Insurgents drove a vehicle bomb to breach the fortified perimeter of a housing enclave for foreigners, suicide bombers disguised in women’s burqas followed. Gun battles erupted as Afghan and western troops fought the latest brazen attack in the capital. At least seven died; evidence of the still-fragile security situation in Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama, who arrived in secrecy at 10 p.m., visited with Mr. Karzai an hour later after a helicopter flight to the palace in Kabul, delivered his speech to Americans at 4 a.m. Wednesday morning in Kabul and was gone before most Afghans awoke.
His key message: that he has been a war-ending president, in sharp, if unspoken, contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush.
“The Iraq war is over,” Mr. Obama said. “The number of our troops in harm's way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon.”
Mr. Obama, who once called the Afghan conflict the “right war” when compared to Iraq, ordered tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan in a massive surge. Last year, more than 100,000 U.S. troops were on the ground, along with 30,000 other western soldiers, exceeding even the huge Soviet presence that failed to subdue fierce resistance in the 1980s.
“Over the last three years the tide has turned,” Mr. Obama claimed, referring to the surge on his watch. “We broke the Taliban's momentum.”
But with public support sagging at home, allies – including Canada – quitting combat and pulling out, Mr. Obama has increasingly stressed a wind-down of the war.
Many Afghans want foreign troops out, even as the security situation remains precarious.
A series of ugly incidents has enraged many. The burning of Korans at Bagram (where the president made his televised speech), videos of U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Afghans, and a gruesome massacre of 17, mostly women and children, by a U.S. sergeant have all further poisoned relations.
So-called ‘green-on-blue’ attacks – when Afghan soldiers kill U.S. or other foreign troops mentoring them – have spiked, reaching nearly one-a-week so far this year.
So Mr. Obama has largely re-cast the war’s aims in terms of al-Qaeda, the Islamic extremist group harboured in Afghanistan by the Taliban at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijackings that destroyed New York’s twin towers and damaged the Pentagon.
“Our goal is not to build a country in America's image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban,” he said. “Our goal is to destroy al- Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that.”
Mr. Obama confirmed there’s a place for the Taliban in Afghanistan’s future. “We're pursuing a negotiated peace. In co-ordination with the Afghan government, my administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban.”
Critics will accuse Mr. Obama of electioneering; of seeking to burnish his ‘commander-in-chief’ image with the visit to the front on the anniversary of the raid that killed bin Laden.
But the Afghan war, unless is spirals out of control, seems unlikely to play a major role in this year’s presidential campaign.
Mitt Romney has avoided direct criticism of the president’s exit strategy.
As Mr. Obama flew home, his rival for the Oval Office said: “It would be a tragedy for Afghanistan and a strategic setback for America if the Taliban returned to power and once again created a sanctuary for terrorists.”
Meanwhile, a Pentagon report released Tuesday warned the Taliban and al-Qaeda “still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan.”