The decision drew criticism from some of his GOP rivals, including the presumptive presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, that Obama was calibrating his war strategy to the election calendar. Romney, who on Tuesday gave Obama a share of the credit for bin Laden’s killing, has said the U.S. goal should be to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield.
But Obama on Tuesday laid out a different ambition.
“Our goal is not to build a country in America’s image or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban,” he said. “These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars and many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al-Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that.”
The last of the 33,000 troops Obama dispatched to Afghanistan in 2009 will head home at the end of September. Senior administration officials said Tuesday that, though no specific future troop levels have been determined, a “steady reduction” will follow over the next two years.
Obama’s timeline calls on Afghan security forces to take the lead in combat operations by the end of next year. All U.S. troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2014, except for trainers who will assist Afghan forces and a small contingent of troops with a specific mission to combat al-Qaeda through counterterrorism operations.
In his remarks, Obama emphasized that the United States will not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan, a country that for centuries has fiercely opposed foreign interlopers.
Those U.S. trainers and Special Operations troops that remain beyond 2014 will live on Afghan bases. Senior administration officials said the agreement is meant to send a signal to the Taliban that they cannot “wait out” the international presence, which is supporting a fragile Afghan government.
“The goal I set to defeat al-Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild is now within reach,” Obama said.
Traveling overnight and landing in darkness, Obama arrived at Bagram air base, 35 miles north of Kabul, at 10:20 p.m. local time and boarded a helicopter for a flight into the capital. He arrived at the presidential palace just after 11 p.m. for a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, who has had a contentious relationship with Obama over the years.
“I’m here to affirm the bond between our two countries and to thank Americans and Afghans who have sacrificed so much over these last 10 years,” Obama said. “Neither Americans nor the Afghan people asked for this war, yet for a decade we’ve stood together.”
In signing the agreement after 20 months of difficult negotiations, Obama said that “the Afghan people and the world should know that Afghanistan has a partner in the United States.”