Obama in Afghanistan on surprise trip, one year after bin Laden killing

Obama in Afghanistan on surprise trip, one year after bin Laden killing

President Barack Obama has landed in Afghanistan and arrived at the presidential palace in Kabul, where he will sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Afghan government on the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

"President Barack Obama is in Afghanistan for a whirlwind visit that will culminate in a live, televised address to the American people," a White House pool report said Tuesday.

Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will sign the agreement shortly and Obama is scheduled to address the nation just after 7:30 EDT Tuesday evening (4 AM local time) from Bagram Airbase. The agreement commits the United States to a security presence in Afghanistan for years after the 2014 handover of control to the Afghan government, but exact troop numbers won’t be decided until next year.

Obama’s plane left Andrews Air Force Base just after midnight Monday and arrived at Bagram Tuesday evening Afghanistan time. He was greeted at Bagram by Amb. Ryan Crocker and Lt. Gen. Mike Scaparotti, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

"Senior administration officials said the timing of the trip was driven by the negotiations over the Strategic Partnership Agreement and by the desire of both presidents to sign the agreement in Afghanistan prior to the NATO summit in Chicago later this month," the pool report stated. "However, the officials also acknowledged that the timing coincides with the first anniversary of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden."

At the Pentagon, defense officials released a new report on the progress of the mission in Afghanistan, required by Congress under section 1230 of the Defense Authorization Act. The report claims continued progress in the effort to defeat the Taliban and train the Afghan National Security Forces to take the lead.

"The year 2011 saw the first year-over-year decline in nationwide enemy-initiated attacks in five years. These trends have continued in 2012," the report stated. "The performance of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the close partnership between the ANSF and ISAF have been keys to this success. As a result, the ANSF continue to develop into a force capable of assuming the lead for security responsibility throughout Afghanistan."

The report did mention the dozen or so attacks on ISAF forces by soldiers in ANSF uniforms, known as "green on blue" attacks, but the report failed to note that some attempted "green on blue" attacks are never reported by ISAF because they were not successful, as reported by the Associated Press Monday.

While the Pentagon report praises the progress of allied forces in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, it excoriates Pakistan for harboring enemies of the Afghan government and accuses Karzai’s government of rampant corruption.

"The Taliban-led insurgency and its al Qaeda affiliates 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. The insurgency benefits from safe havens inside Pakistan with notable operational and regenerative capacity," the report states.

"Additionally, the Afghan Government continues to face widespread corruption that limits its effectiveness and legitimacy and bolsters insurgent messaging."

The handover of security control to Afghan government forces continues apace, according to the report. As of March 31, 2012, 20 of 34 provinces, comprising about half the Afghan population, were under Afghan control, the report said.

The report said that ANSF numbers will reach 352,000 by Oct. 2012, which is about when the United States will make decisions regarding how many American troops to leave in Afghanistan when the drawdown of "surge" troops is complete this fall. At that time, 68,000 U.S. troops will remain, with the goal of handing over complete control to the Afghan government in 2014.

The report claims that the insurgency is severely degraded and that Taliban reintegration programs are working well.

"ANSF-ISAF operations have widened the gap between the insurgents and the population in several key population centers, limiting insurgent freedom of movement, disrupting safe havens in Afghanistan, and degrading insurgent leadership," says the report. "Continued success of the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program appears to be amplifying this trend by degrading Taliban cohesiveness."

A senior State Department official said Tuesday that the the Strategic Partnership Agreement Obama is about to sign contains within it mechanisms to get at the problem of Afghan government corruption.

The agreement authorizes "a bilateral commission with a set of working groups that will further assure the donor community, including the United States, that the Afghans are making the kind of progress that they need to make in order to demonstrate to donors that it’s worthwhile to continue providing the kind of assistance that we provide," the official said.

But the Pakistan problem remains. A senior Pentagon official said that the share of attacks in eastern Afghanistan has gone up due to the activity of the Pakistan-based Haqqani network.

"The Haqqani network continues to operate networks in Afghanistan and continues to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.  When we’re talking about the attacks on RC-East, the Haqqani network is the major actor in the major problem area," the official said. "We will continue to work to interdict their ability to act in Afghanistan and continue to make clear to Pakistan that we expect them to take action to prevent violence emanating from its borders, impacting other countries, including its neighbor Afghanistan."