BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — On a swift, secretive trip to the war zone, President Barack Obama declared Tuesday that after years of sacrifice, the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan is winding down just as it has already ended in Iraq.
“We can see the light of a new day,” Obama said on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death and in the midst of his own re-election campaign.
“Our goal is to destroy al-Qaida, and we are on a path to do exactly that,” Obama said in a speech to America broadcast from an air base halfway around the world.
He spoke after signing an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to cover the decade after the planned final withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in 2014.
Obama said American forces will be involved in counter-terrorism and training of the Afghan military, “but we will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains.”
The president landed in Bagram in darkness, and his helicopter roared to Kabul for the meeting with Karzai, under close guard with only the outlines of the nearby mountains visible.
Later, back at the base, Obama was surrounded by U.S. troops, shaking every hand. He ended his lightning visit with the speech delivered straight to the television camera — and the voters he was trying to reach back home.
Two armored troop carriers served as a backdrop, rather than the customary Oval Office tableau.
His likely Republican re-election foe, Mitt Romney, was in New York, where the destruction of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, set in motion the decisions that led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Romney accused Obama of politicizing the fleeting national unity that came with the death of bin Laden, the 9/11 terror mastermind.
At the air base, Obama said, “This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end. ... With faith in each other, and our eyes fixed on the future, let us finish the work at hand and forge a just and lasting peace.”
Earlier, he delivered a similarly upbeat message to the troops. Noting their sacrifice, he said, “There’s a light on the horizon.”
It was Obama’s fourth trip to Afghanistan, his third as commander in chief. He was less than seven hours on the ground in all. He also visited troops at a hospital at the Bagram base, awarding 10 Purple Hearts.
According to the Pentagon, more than 1,800 American troops have been killed across more than a decade of war in Afghanistan. Some 88,000 remain stationed there.
The wars here and in Iraq combined have cost almost $1.3 trillion. And recent polls show that up to 60 percent of Americans oppose the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
In his speech to the nation, Obama said, “I recognize many Americans are tired of war.”
He said that last year, “we removed 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Another 23,000 will leave by the end of the summer. After that, reductions will continue at a steady pace, with more of our troops coming home.
“And as our coalition agreed, by the end of 2014 the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country.”
Without mentioning the political campaign back home, Obama claimed that on his watch the fortunes of the terrorists have suffered mightily.
Over the past three years “the tide has turned. We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al- Qaida’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders,” he said.
“And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin laden.”
In a reference to the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, he added, “As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America ... a united America of grit and resilience, where sunlight glistens off soaring new towers in downtown Manhattan, and we build our future as one people, as one nation.”
He spoke for less than 15 minutes, beginning at 4 a.m. in Afghanistan, 7:30 p.m. on the East Coast of the United States.
Minutes later, Air Force One was on its way back to Washington.
Obama flew to the site of America’s longest war not only as commander in chief but also as an incumbent president in the early stages of a tough re-election campaign. Nor were the two roles completely distinct.
His presence was a reminder that since taking office in 2009, Obama has ended the war in Iraq and moved to create an orderly end for the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan.
In the political realm, he and Vice President Joe Biden have marked the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death by questioning whether Romney would have ordered the daring raid that penetrated the terrorist leader’s Pakistan hide- out.
Republicans are accusing the president of trying for political gain from the event, and Romney insisted that he would indeed have ordered U.S. forces into action.
The deal Obama signed with Karzai does not commit the United States to any specific troop presence or spending. But it does allow the U.S. to potentially keep troops in Afghanistan after the war ends for two specific purposes — continued training of Afghan forces and targeted operations against al-Qaida.
Obama said the agreement was meant in part to pay tribute to the U.S. troops who have died in Afghanistan since the war began.