The long-term pact, the fruit of nearly two years of talks, emphasized that the United States did not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan but would operate from Afghan facilities. The agreement also allows for an unspecificed number of American forces to remain past 2014 to train their local counterparts and target al-Qaida. And it commits Washington to designating Kabul a "major non-NATO Ally," a special status that makes it easier to provide military aid.
"Within this framework, we will work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014: counter-terrorism and continued training," the president said. "But we will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people."
Obama predicted that NATO leaders would embrace the plan when they meet in Chicago later this month. They will lay out goals for the handover of security responsibility to Afghan forces, he said, ultimately enabling most allied forces to withdraw.
"Still, there will be difficult days ahead. The enormous sacrifices of our men and women are not over," he warned.
The partnership deal reportedly gives Afghans control over prisoners and makes night raids--a frequent source of Afghan resentment and anger--subject to approval from the Afghan government.
The president left Andrews Air Force Base, home to his blue and white liveried Air Force One, at 12:09 a.m. Tuesday morning and landed at Bagram at 10:20 p.m. local time. He then took a helicopter to the presidential palace in Kabul, where he arrived just after 11 p.m. local.
The unannounced trip recalled President George W. Bush's Thanksgiving 2003 trip to Iraq, a cloak-and-dagger operation that saw him sneak off his Texas ranch, fly to Washington and then on to Baghdad with a small group of aides and reporters. Obama's visit also comes on the ninth anniversary of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech about the Iraq war, a cautionary tale for any president tempted to take a "victory lap" in wartime.
Obama previously visited Afghanistan in March 2010 and December 2010, and traveled to Iraq in April 2009. Bush visited Iraq in November 2003, June 2006, and September 2007, and traveled to Afghanistan in March 2006. In December 2008, Bush visited Iraq and Afghanistan.
The secrecy surrounding the trip--a news blackout, arriving in darkness--highlighted the grim security situation in Afghanistan 11 ½ years after American soldiers invaded in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist strikes.
The visit came as the Pentagon released an Afghanistan war progress report that highlights "both long-term and acute challenges" of the conflict, and warns that the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies "still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan."
"The insurgency's safe haven in Pakistan, as well as the limited capacity of the Afghan government, remain the biggest risks to the process of turning security gains into a durable and sustainable Afghanistan," according to the report.