Obama swoops into Afghanistan on bin Laden death anniversary (UPDATED)

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President Barack Obama marked the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death with a speedy trip to Afghanistan, signing a strategic pact with Kabul on Wednesday and delivering an election-year message to Americans that the war is winding down.

Shortly after arriving under the cover of darkness, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a strategic partnership agreement at the Afghan leader’s palace that sets out a long-term U.S. role in Afghanistan, including aid and advisers.

The deal may provide Afghans with reassurances that they will not be abandoned when most NATO combat troops leave in 2014. For Obama, it was an opportunity to draw a line under an unpopular war that was started by his predecessor.

“My fellow Americans, 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,” Obama said in a televised address to the American people against the backdrop of armored vehicles and a U.S. flag.

“As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it’s time to renew America,” he said. “This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end.”

Nearly 3,000 U.S. and NATO soldiers have died during the Afghanistan war since the Taliban rulers were ousted in 2001.

Obama visited with troops during his short stay in the country and emphasized bin Laden’s demise, an event that his re-election campaign has touted as one of his greatest achievements in office.

“Not only were we able to drive al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but slowly and systematically we have been able to decimate the ranks of al Qaeda, and a year ago we were able to finally to bring Osama bin Laden to justice,” Obama said to cheers.

But even as he later asserted in his speech that there was a “clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan,” he warned of further hardship ahead.

“I recognize that many Americans are tired of war … But we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan and end this war responsibly,” he said at Bagram airbase outside of Kabul, where only months ago thousands of Afghans rioted after U.S. troops accidentally burned copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

The incident plunged already-tense relations to their lowest point in years.

While speaking in broad terms of “difficult days ahead,” Obama did not directly address some of the thorniest challenges – a resilient Taliban insurgency, rampant official corruption and strained U.S. relations with Pakistan where militants have found safe haven for plotting cross-border attacks.

Obama met Karzai at his walled garden palace in Kabul, where they signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA).

“By signing this document, we close the last 10 years and open a new season of equal relations,” Karzai said in a statement after the meeting.

Within Afghanistan, the palace signing ceremony was aimed at sending a message to the Taliban and other groups that they cannot wait out 130,000 foreign troops and retake power.

It could help push the insurgency’s leaders to re-enter reconciliation talks with both the U.S. and Afghan governments.


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