05.01.12

Secret and Strategic, Obama Lands in Afghanistan

For the third time, Obama travels secretively to Afghanistan to meet with U.S. and Afghan officials to ink an agreement ramping down the war. Daniel Stone reports how the White House pulled it off.

President Obama landed in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday night in an ongoing series of secret overseas jaunts to wrap up the war in Afghanistan. In a surprise to a press corps that usually follows his every move, the presidential entourage flew halfway around the world to ink a strategic partnership deal that U.S. diplomats had finalized last month with Afghan officials outlining ongoing American presence in the country after military operations scale down in 2014.

The visit is Obama’s third as president and marks the anniversary of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, a mission that was launched from inside Afghanistan. It’s also almost exactly two years before American combat troops will end deployments to the region. White House officials said the visit had been planned for more than a year, and that Afghan President Karzai had requested that the agreement be signed on Afghan soil.

Obama left Washington just after dawn on Tuesday on Air Force One, which often stops to refuel on an U.S. base in Germany. Officials wouldn’t’ disclose the timing or itinerary of Obama’s trip, except to say that he would speak at 4 a.m. local time to coincide with prime time for U.S. audiences. The entire visit, as is common, wouldn’t last longer than 10 hours.

Officials on the ground in Afghanistan noted that the ceremony would paint a portrait of solidarity between the two countries that have been more antagonistic than friendly during most of the past decade.

"I’ve come to Afghanistan to mark a historic moment for our two nations, and to do so on Afghan soil," Obama said at the ceremony after signing the agreement. "I’m here to affirm the bonds between our countries, to thank American and Afghans who have sacrificed so much over these last 10 years, and to look forward to a future of peace and security and greater prosperity for our nations."

For the White House, the timing of Obama’s jaunt appears elementally deliberate. Kicking off the general-election campaign in recent weeks, Obama has led his opening argument with his foreign-policy achievements, a record whose chief accomplishment is the Bin Laden operation. Two TV ads over the past week that tout Obama’s gutsy decision have been met with strong rebuke from his likely opponent, Mitt Romney, who faulted the president for politicizing national security.

In a 7:30 p.m. address to the nation, Obama will make note of the bin Laden anniversary. Unmentioned will be the nine-year anniversary of George W. Bush’s speech aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, where he infamously, and prematurely, declared "mission accomplished" in the War on Terror.

As Obama runs for a second term, his visit with Karzai suggests a president in control and honoring a campaign promise of responsibly ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At a news conference on Monday at the White House, Obama pushed back against criticism that he had excessively celebrated his leadership in a moment that Republicans argue shouldn’t become a political wedge. Obama alluded to Romney’s comments in 2007 that it wasn’t worth “moving heaven and earth ... just trying to catch one person,” namely bin Laden, to suggest that Romney wouldn’t have made the same daring decision to launch a risky mission in sovereign Pakistani air space.

Romney didn’t immediately respond to Obama’s surprise trip; his campaign indicated he’d address the matter later in the day. On Tuesday he was making campaign rounds in New York City, campaigning for part of the day with former mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Aside from Romney and Obama’s latest flap over the bin Laden anniversary, Obama’s trip conveys a more symbolic image. As the president runs for a second term, his visit with Karzai portrays a president in control and honoring a campaign promise of responsibly ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also undercuts one of Romney’s most recent critiques of Obama on Afghanistan. Last month, Romney said that Obama had been detached from ongoing combat operations and should be “more engaged” with military commanders and with Karzai.