The biggest surprise of President Obama's appearance in Afghanistan on Tuesday was his use of the occasion to make a head-scratching speech and sign a strategic accord that raises more questions than it answers.
"Over the last three years, the tide has turned," the president said. "We broke the Taliban's momentum." This triumphant note jars against a Pentagon report released this week, which warned that "the insurgency remains a resilient and determined enemy and will likely attempt to regain lost ground and influence this spring and summer."
Obama can be forgiven for wanting to put the best spin on the situation, but the Afghans present were probably not convinced about the tide's turning. The most important audience might have been U.S. allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, who needed to be assured of the White House's intentions in Afghanistan before a NATO summit meeting this month in Chicago.
Which brings us to the ostensible reason for Obama's trip, the agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a "legally binding executive agreement, which does not require it to be submitted to the Senate" for approval, according to White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. What it will require from Congress, however, is annual funding of an unspecified amount to support Afghan security forces after the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in 2014 -- shaky ground on which to base an important national-security priority.
The partnership agreement's expansive provisions on social and economic development are likewise vague and wishful. And the Afghan government's commitment to fighting rampant corruption has what the Pentagon describes as "minimal political support."
We recognize the symbolic importance of a strong U.S. commitment to Afghanistan's future. The lack of detail in this "enduring strategic partnership agreement," however, suggests that it will be anything but.
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William Kristol, Weekly Standard (writing in the Washington Post):
The most striking sentence of Obama's eloquent speech to the nation Tuesday night came very near the end: "This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end."
Would that it were so.
But what if the reality is that, from Pakistan in the east to Tunisia in the west, we are at war with political Islamism, a movement whose ability to find state sponsors and enablers is not limited to just one country or two?
This isn't a pleasant reality, and even the Bush administration wasn't quite ready to confront it. But President George W. Bush did capture the truth that we are engaged in -- and had no choice but to engage in -- a bigger war, a "global war on terror," of which Afghanistan was only one front.
This doesn't mean we need to be deploying troops and fighting ground wars all around the globe. After Korea and Vietnam, we conducted the rest of the Cold War without major combat operations. But that "time of war" didn't end after the armistice in Korea or the retreat from Vietnam.
Unfortunately, the war in which we are engaged won't end with peace in, or withdrawal from, Afghanistan.
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Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times:Obama and his campaign have managed to turn the anniversary of Bin Laden's death into a weeklong celebration of the president-as-tough-guy. And they're celebrating in a distinctly partisan way, suggesting that Mitt Romney would not have made the same decision.
The impulse is understandable. Ever since Obama took office, the GOP has accused him of being weak. And these portrayals have persisted despite Obama's refusal to play the part.
Not only did he order the death of Bin Laden, he also approved relentless campaigns of drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen and tripled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Still, Obama would have done better not to turn the anniversary of Obama's death into an attack on Romney. It wasn't presidential, and it wasn't even necessary. The president deserved credit for a gutsy decision, but by the time he got to Kabul, his campaign had turned it into another cable television food-fight.
Obama has every right to tout the progress he's made against Al-Qaida and the promises he's kept in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he's got every right to challenge Romney's inconsistencies.
But that's what campaign debates are for. When the president wants to commemorate an act of military valor, he should keep politics out of the mix.
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Obama laid out two big visions in his address from Bagram air base on Tuesday night.
One was a long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and its struggle to build and defend a sovereign and democratic government; the other was a promise, for Americans, of an end to "a decade of conflict abroad" after Sept. 11, 2001.
Those goals do not necessarily contradict each other. In fact, they both depend on the irreversible defeat of Al-Qaida, which Obama said "is now within our reach."
In Afghanistan, however, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Obama's pledges will be delivered on only if they do not conflict with his determination to "complete our mission and end the war" for Americans by the end of 2014.
The president deserves credit for concluding the "enduring strategic partnership agreement" between Afghanistan and the United States. It begins by saying that "a strong commitment to protecting and promoting democratic values and human rights is a fundamental aspect of U.S.-Afghan long-term partnership and cooperation."
It commits Afghanistan to upholding those rights, including protections for women, in any peace deal with the Taliban. The Obama administration, for its part, pledges to designate Afghanistan as a "major non-NATO ally" and to request economic and military funding for it from Congress each year.
Obama nevertheless made it clear that "reductions of troops will continue at a steady pace." And he added that the United States would not try to "build a country in America's image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban."
It follows that the "future in which war ends" that the president described will not necessarily extend to Afghans. Their desire for "a lasting peace ... requires a clear timeline to wind down the war," Obama insisted.
But a timeline won't end the fighting, except for Americans, and it could encourage the Taliban and its backers to wait out a U.S. and NATO withdrawal rather than accept a peace settlement.