x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A deadly retort to Obama's visit to Afghanistan

The US president boasts progress and signs a new accord during a surprise, fly-by-night visit, but with seven killed hours after he leaves, the Taliban says their spring offensive will be launched in earnest on Thursday.

US President Barack Obama greets troops at Bagram Air Base in Kabul. Mr Obama and Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement at the Presidential Palace.
US President Barack Obama greets troops at Bagram Air Base in Kabul. Mr Obama and Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement at the Presidential Palace.

WASHINGTON // The visit by Barack Obama, the US president, to Afghanistan may have been a surprise, but nothing about the timing was incidental.

Mr Obama flew into Bagram Air Base in time to address US troops and an American television audience watching the evening news on Tuesday. He made it back to Washington for a late breakfast yesterday. In between, and on the anniversary of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, he signed what he touted as a "historic" partnership agreement with Hamid Karzai, his Afghan counterpart.

Less than two hours after he left Afghanistan, Taliban fighters killed at least seven and wounded more than a dozen in an attack in Kabul and announced that a spring offensive would be launched in earnest on Thursday.

The US-Afghan agreement - providing for continued US aid as well as the potential presence of US troops up to 2024 - had been 20 months in the making and was negotiated during some of the tensest times in the two countries' relationship.

Since the start of this year, the US military in Afghanistan has been dogged by scandal. One soldier stands accused of committing mass murder in an Afghan village in March. Copies of the Quran were incinerated on a US military base in February, sparking deadly riots, while there have been revelations of US soldiers desecrating the bodies of dead Taliban fighters.

The US-Afghanistan agreement was signed during a lull in that tension, however, and ahead of the Nato summit this month in Chicago where Afghanistan's future is likely to figure heavily.

The signing of the agreement was carefully timed to address domestic concerns over a war that most Americans now oppose on a backdrop of relative calm in a country in which Afghan security forces are still only in control of about half the population.

It was also another opportunity for Mr Obama to refer to the killing of bin Laden - which is becoming a major plank in his re-election campaign - as a turning point in a war he said was nearly over.

"We devastated Al Qaeda's leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set - to defeat Al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild - is now within our reach."

He vowed to bring 23,000 troops back to the US by the end of the summer, returning the last of the 33,000 troops that he authorised as part of a military surge in 2010. This would leave US troop levels in Afghanistan at 68,000.

The last of those troops would leave in 2014, by which time, Mr Obama said, Afghan forces would be in sole control of their country's security.

Afghan security forces now number 362,000.

There is provision in the agreement for an American troop presence until 2024, the exact level of which has not been spelt out. Those troops will have strictly two functions, according to administration officials who briefed the media before Mr Obama's speech. They would either train local forces or engage in counter-terrorism operations

"If we do have any presence here after 2014, it would be on Afghan facilities," said one administration official, on condition of anonymity. "We will not be building any permanent bases in this country. We will not be patrolling Afghanistan's cities and mountains. That will be Afghan security forces who will carry out those functions."

As optimistic as US officials tried to sound, however, there was no disguising the size of the task that will face those security forces. Just hours after Mr Obama left Afghanistan, attackers targeted a heavily fortified, private compound in eastern Afghanistan that is mostly occupied by international workers.

A three-hour gun battle followed that left seven people dead and 17 injured in an operation the Taliban said was a message to Mr Obama that US troops had to leave.

"You don't need to sign agreements; you need to focus on how to get out of this country," said Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman in a statement.

Administration officials say efforts to reconcile Afghans will now be one of the priorities of a US Afghan policy. They say that there are elements in the Taliban that are ready for such reconciliation with the Kabul government. And Mr Obama was careful to frame the US mission in Afghanistan now as being solely about dismantling Al Qaeda.

But if Mr Obama's speech was carefully timed to appeal to a domestic audience, the Taliban response seemed equally carefully timed to temper any optimism that they are a spent force.

A US military report to Congress, released on Tuesday, underlined the situation. Insurgent attacks may have declined by nine per cent in 2011, said the report, according to Reuters. But it concluded hat there were "long-term and acute challenges" remaining, not least the continued potency of insurgents as well as the "limited capacity" of the Afghan government.