President Barack Obama’s surprise visit to Afghanistan — his first since December 2010 — got tepid applause from conservative lawmakers and scorn from those who believed his timing, coinciding with the May 1 anniversary of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, represented inappropriate political grandstanding.
The ostensible reason for the visit was a meeting with Afghan president Hamid Karzai to sign a partnership agreement projecting U.S. assistance in Afghanistan through 2024. While Karzai last week publicly demanded at least $2 billion a year from the U.S. to support Afghan security efforts, neither funding levels nor U.S. troop strength past 2014 were discussed specifically.
In a speech delivered at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, Obama reiterated his plan to have U.S. troops turn the security of the country over to Afghan control by 2014, and discussed ongoing U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, whose insurgent forces have been responsible for most of the U.S. casualties in Afghanistan in recent years.
“We have made it clear that (the Taliban) can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence, and abide by Afghan laws,” Obama said. “Many members of the Taliban — from foot soldiers to leaders — have indicated an interest in reconciliation.”
Obama said his set goal of defeating al Qaeda was in reach, a claim that many have challenged in recent days, observing the proliferation of the terrorist organization throughout parts of the Middle East including Yemen, Iraq, and northern Africa.
For House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), Obama’s visit and projection of a vision for Afghanistan was long overdue.
“It shouldn’t require congressional pressure, editorials from leading newspapers, and a presidential election to get the president to fulfill his role as commander in chief and speak to the American people about the war in Afghanistan,” he said. “I sincerely hope that it won’t be another year before we hear from our president on this important topic.”
Senate Armed Services Committee member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) released a searing statement accusing the president of letting the war slip low on the nation’s list of priorities.
“In 2008, he campaigned on Afghanistan being the war we should focus on,” Inhofe said. “However, under his leadership, support for the war in Afghanistan is at an all time low because he has refused to articulate the value and importance of the work our troops are doing there. Unfortunately, this President has allowed Washington and campaign politics to dictate his strategy in Afghanistan rather than the conditions on the ground. We saw this when he failed to provide the troops the commanders needed during the surge, and again when he brought troops home during the height of fighting season.”
But SASC chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) struck a hopeful note as he reacted to the visit.
“I would urge the President to return from this visit and spend more time speaking directly with the American people about the vital national security interests at stake in Afghanistan and the need for the United States to remain strongly engaged there in the years ahead,” he said.
Heritage Foundation expert James Jay Carafano called the timing of the speech “crass” and said the partnership agreement with Karzai was just a way to hedge his bets in case the U.S. troop pull-out of Afghanistan — criticized by many as premature — failed.
“The biggest ‘I can’t believe he said that’ moment had to be ‘We can see the light of a new day on the horizon,’” Carafano wrote in an analysis. “Okay, so at least he didn’t declare it was ‘a light at the end of the tunnel.’ Different metaphor — but it still had that used car salesman feel.”