(KABUL) — President Obama made a surprise visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, overnight Monday on a secret trip that coincides with the one-year anniversary of the U.S. mission that killed Osama bin Laden.
Obama touched down at Bagram Air Field just outside the Afghan capital at 1:50 p.m. ET Tuesday, according to press pool reports, following a roughly 13-hour flight that was shrouded in secrecy to protect the president’s security.
He will address the nation live from the base tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET, following meetings with Afghan president Hamid Karzai in Kabul. He is expected to announce the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement, which will ensure U.S. military and financial support for Afghanistan beyond 2014, when the final U.S. combat troops will withdraw.
The arrangement, penned ahead of a NATO summit on Afghanistan in Chicago later this month, is designed to send a strong message to the region that the U.S. is not abandoning the country even as it sharply reduces its footprint there. Even as Afghans take the lead in domestic security operations, U.S. military intelligence resources, aircraft and counterterrorism tools will continue to provide support, officials say.
A semi-annual Pentagon report to Congress released Tuesday on the status of the 11-year war concluded that coalition forces still face “long-term and acute challenges” because of safe havens in Pakistan and “widespread corruption” within the Afghan government “that limits its effectiveness and legitimacy.”
Still, the Taliban has been degraded and security in the country has improved over the past six months, according to the report. After five consecutive years where enemy-initiated attacks rose, they dropped 9 percent in 2011 over 2010 and were down 16 percent in 2012 compared to the year before.
“We are making serious important progress” but “challenges remain,” a senior Defense Department official told reporters this week.
A number of bloody incidents involving American as well as Afghan soldiers and civilians have also complicated the war effort.
In March, a U.S. soldier went on a shooting rampage in an Afghan village, killing 17 civilians including women and children, sparking anti-American protests across the country.
Meanwhile, the number of U.S. service members killed by Afghan allies they worked alongside has continued to climb, with more than a dozen so-called green-on-blue attacks, leaving 10 dead Americans dead this year alone.
The inadvertent burning of Korans by American soldiers on a military base earlier this year and photos of troops posing with deceased Afghans and urinating on their corpses have also inflamed U.S.-Afghan relations.
The U.S. and its NATO allies intend to turn over security control to the Afghans by the end of 2014. The U.S. is expected to reduce its force to about 68,000 by the end of September, down from the roughly 88,000 now in Afghanistan.
The withdrawal has become a major selling point of Obama’s re-election campaign.
“Change is the promise we made in 2008,” Obama told supporters at a campaign fundraiser in Detroit last month. “For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. We have refocused our efforts on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11. Al Qaeda is weaker than it’s ever been. Thanks to our amazing troops, Osama bin Laden no longer walks the face of this Earth.”
“We have begun to transition out of Afghanistan. That’s what change is,” he said.
The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll found a record high number — 66 percent — of Americans believe the Afghanistan war has not been worth fighting, matching opposition to the war in Iraq at its peak five years ago.
As for views of Obama’s handling of the war effort, more Americans approve than disapprove of his leadership, 48 to 43 percent.
Tuesday’s trip marks Obama’s third visit to Afghanistan since he took office in 2009. He most recently visited Kabul in December 2010, one year after approving a surge of U.S. troops to try and stabilize the war-torn country. Obama made his first visit as president in March 2010, when he rallied U.S. troops and pressed Karzai in a private meeting to more forcefully combat government corruption and fight Islamic extremism.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN