President Barack Obama, on a surprise nighttime trip to Afghanistan, told war-weary Americans that he would keep his promise to wind down the unpopular conflict by the end of 2014 but also vowed he would not abandon the strife-torn country prematurely.
In a televised address from an aircraft hangar at Bagram Air Base, Obama said the daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden exactly one year ago meant that the goal of crushing the al-Qaida network was "now within our reach."
"I recognize that many Americans are tired of war," Obama said. "I will not keep Americans in harm's way a single day longer than is absolutely required for our national security. But we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan and end this war responsibly."
Obama, speaking at 4 a.m. local time, highlighted a new security agreement both he and Afghan President Hamid Karzai had signed hours earlier to usher in "a future in which the war ends, and a new chapter begins."
Obama had a message for those, mostly Republicans, who question his timetable for withdrawal and argue that it risks emboldening the Taliban and their al-Qaida and other extremist allies while demoralizing America's Afghan friends.
"Our goal is to destroy al-Qaida, and we are on a path to do exactly that," he said. "Afghans want to fully assert their sovereignty and build a lasting peace. That requires a clear timeline to wind down the war."
But he also took aim at those, mostly Democrats but a growing number of conservatives, who no longer see a clear purpose to America's longest war and "will ask why we don't leave immediately."
"That answer is also clear: we must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize," the president said from behind a podium emblazoned with his official seal, with several armored vehicles parked behind him. "Otherwise, our gains could be lost, and al-Qaida could establish itself once more. And as commander-in-chief, I refuse to let that happen,"
Obama, already taking fire from the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, also offered a broader, ringing defense of his overall stewardship of the "war on terrorism" he inherited from George W. Bush. "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," he declared.
"The Iraq war is over. The number of our troops in harm's way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al Qaeda," he said.
"This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end," he predicted.
Earlier, Obama thanked the troops in the field by radio, and visited the base's hospital, where he awarded 10 Purple Hearts.
The independent group icasualties.org puts overall NATO coalition casualties in "Operation Enduring Freedom" since 2001 at 2,985, with 1,957 of them Americans. More than 15,000 Americans have been wounded over the same period.