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President Obama in Afghanistan, sees 'light of new day"

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (AP) - On a swift, secretive trip
to the war zone, President Barack Obama declared Tuesday night that after years of sacrifice the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan is
winding down just as it has already ended in Iraq. "We can see the
light of a new day on the horizon," he said on the anniversary of
Osama bin Laden's death and in the midst of his own re-election
campaign.

"Our goal is to destroy al-Qaida, and we are on a path to do
exactly that," Obama said in an unusual speech to America
broadcast from an air base halfway around the world.

He spoke after signing an agreement with Afghan President Hamid
Karzai setting post-war promises and expectations. With two armored
troop carriers as a backdrop, Obama made his remarks in the midst
of his endeavor to win re-election as U.S. president and commander
in chief.

The president landed in Bagram in darkness, and his helicopter
roared to Kabul for the meeting with Karzai, under close guard,
with only the outlines of the nearby mountains visible. Later, back
at the base, he was surrounded by U.S. troops, shaking every hand.
He ended his lightning visit with the speech delivered straight to
the television camera - and the voters he was trying to reach back
home.

"This time of war began in Afghanistan," he said. "With faith
in each other, and our eyes fixed on the future, let us finish the
work at hand and forge a just and lasting peace."

Earlier, he delivered a similarly upbeat message to the troops.
Noting their sacrifice, he said, "There's a light on the
horizon."

It was Obama's fourth trip to Afghanistan, his third as
commander in chief. He was about seven hours on the ground in all.
He also visited troops at a hospital at the Bagram base, awarding
10 Purple Hearts.

The written agreement that he and Karzai signed is to cover the
decade after the planned final withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in
2014. Obama said American forces will be involved in
counter-terrorism and training of the Afghan military. "But we
will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be
patrolling its cities and mountains."

In his speech to the nation, Obama said, "I recognize many
Americans are tired of war."

He said that last year, "we removed 10,000 U.S. troops from
Afghanistan. Another 23,000 will leave by the end of the summer.
After that, reductions will continue at a steady pace, with more of
our troops coming home. And as our coalition agreed, by the end of
2014 the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of
their country."

Without mentioning the political campaign back home, Obama
claimed that on his watch the fortunes of the terrorists have
suffered mightily.

Over the past three years "the tide has turned. We broke the
Taliban's momentum. We've built strong Afghan security forces. We
devastated al-Qaida's leadership, taking out over 20 of their top
30 leaders," he said.

"And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops
launched the operation that killed Osama bin laden."

In a reference to the destruction of New York's World Trade
Center on Sept. 11, 2001, he added, "As we emerge from a decade of
conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew
America ... a united America of grit and resilience, where sunlight
glistens off soaring new towers in downtown Manhattan, and we build
our future as one people, as one nation."

He spoke for less than 15 minutes, beginning at 4 a.m. in
Afghanistan, 7:30 p.m. on the East Coast of the United States.
Minutes later, Air Force One was on its way back to Washington.

According to the Pentagon, more than 1,800 American troops have
been killed across more than a decade of war in Afghanistan.

Some 88,000 remain stationed there.

Obama flew to the site of America's longest war not only as
commander in chief but also as an incumbent president in the early
stages of a tough re-election campaign. Nor were the two roles
completely distinct.

His presence was a reminder that since taking office in 2009,
Obama has ended the war in Iraq and moved to create an orderly end
for the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan.

In the political realm, he and Vice President Joe Biden have
marked the one-year anniversary of bin Laden's death by questioning
whether Republican challenger Mitt Romney would have ordered the
daring raid that penetrated the terrorist leader's Pakistan
hide-out. Republicans are accusing the president of politicizing
the event, and Romney is insisting that he would indeed have
ordered U.S. forces into action.

Obama slipped out of Washington, flew all night to Bagram, then
shuttled by helicopter under a moonlight sky to Kabul to help two
strained allies try to turn from war to peace Faeuro" or at a least
stable end to the war. He was greeted by U.S. ambassador Ryan
Crocker.

The deal does not commit the United States to any specific troop
presence or spending. But it does allow the U.S. to potentially
keep troops in Afghanistan after the war ends for two specific
purposes: continued training of Afghan forces and targeted
operations against al-Qaida. The terror group is present in
neighboring Pakistan but has only a nominal presence inside
Afghanistan.

Obama said the agreement was meant in part to pay tribute to the
U.S. troops who have died in Afghanistan since the war began. He
also underlined his message to Afghans.

"With this agreement I am confident that the Afghan people will
understand that the United States will stand by them," he said.

Karzai said his countrymen "will never forget" the help of
U.S. forces over the past decade. He said the partnership agreement
shows the United States and Afghanistan will continue to fight
terrorism together. The United States promises to seek money from
Congress every year to support Afghanistan.

After the signing ceremony in Kabul, Obama flew back to Bagram
Air Field. There he offered words of encouragement to assembled
U.S. troops. Obama was to be on the ground for about seven hours in
Afghanistan.

"There's a light on the horizon," he said after cautioning in
somber tones that the war's grim costs were not yet fully paid.

"I know the battle's not yet over," he said. "Some of your
buddies are going to get injured. And some of your buddies may get
killed. And there's going to be heartbreak and pain and difficulty
ahead." He added that his administration is committed to ensuring
that once the war is over, veterans will be given their due.

Officials have previously said as many as 20,000 U.S. troops may
remain after the combat mission ends, but that still must still be
negotiated.

The wars here and in Iraq combined have cost almost $1.3
trillion. And recent polls show that up to 60 percent of Americans
oppose the U.S.'s continued presence in Afghanistan.

The president's Tuesday night address was coming exactly one
year after special forces, on his order, began the raid that led to
the killing of bin Laden in Pakistan.

Since then, ties between the United States and Afghanistan have
been tested anew by the burning of Muslim holy books at a U.S. base
and the massacre of 17 civilians, including children, allegedly by
an American soldier.

Obama had gone twice before to Afghanistan as president, most
recently in December 2010, and once to Iraq in 2009. All such
trips, no matter how carefully planned, carry the weight and the
risks of considerable security challenges. Just last month, the
Taliban began near-simultaneous assaults on embassies, government buildings and NATO bases in Kabul.

Besides the U.S. troops in Afghanistan, there are 40,000 in
coalition forces from other nations.

Obama has already declared that NATO forces will hand over the
lead combat role to Afghanistan in 2013 as the U.S. and its allies
work to get out by the end of 2014.

One important unsettled issue, however, is how many U.S. troops
may remain after that.

U.S. officials are eying the 20,000 residual forces to work
mostly in support roles for the Afghan armed forces, and some U.S.
special forces for counterterror missions. The size and scope of
that U.S. force Faeuro" if one can be agreed upon on at all, given the
public moods and political factors in both nations Faeuro" will
probably have to be worked out later in a separate agreement.

Overall, polling shows, Obama gets favorable marks compared to
Romney in handling terrorism, and the president's public approval
for his handling of the Afghan war has hovered around 50 percent of
late.

The trip allows Obama to hold forth as commander in chief in the
same week he plans to launch his official campaign travel with
rallies in Virginia and Ohio.

"We've spent the last three-and-a-half years cleaning up after
other folks' messes," Obama said at a fundraiser last weekend.
"The war in Iraq is over. We're transitioning in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida is on the ropes. We've done what we said we'd do."
---
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan and David Espo, Deputy
Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and News Survey Specialist
Dennis Junius contributed to this story.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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