White House aides said President Obama's surprise trip to Afghanistan Sunday was all about thanking the troops, not politics. But the Memorial Day visit was his first there in two years, and it comes at a time when the commander-in-chief has been openly struggling to decide on the future course of the war and when the administration itself has been battered by a growing controversy over how his Department of Veterans Affairs is taking care of the nation's veterans.
Obama arrived at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul early Sunday morning in the dark. After receiving briefings from Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top American commander in Afghanistan, and U.S. Ambassador Jim Cunningham, Obama told a crowd of waiting troops that he wanted to honor their service and their families' sacrifices. He told them Americans think of them all the time. And he told them, to applause, that "for many of you, this will be your last tour in Afghanistan."
But he didn't tell the troops, part of the 33,000 currently in Afghanistan, how many of them would remain there after the end of the year, when the United States is slated to turn over all security responsibilities to the Afghan government. He did, however, suggest that he planned to leave a small number of American troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. The White House had hinted that it was prepared for a full U.S. withdrawal as it grew increasingly frustrated with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai over his refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement, or BSA, that is required to keep American forces deployed in Afghanistan.
"With that bilateral security agreement, assuming it is signed, we can plan for a limited military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014," Obama said. "Because after all the sacrifices we've made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win, and we're going to make sure that Afghanistan can never again, ever, be used again to launch an attack against our country."
Just how limited that presence will be, however, will remain a mystery -- at least for now.
The White House spent months cajoling and threatening Karzai in an effort to get him to sign the security agreement, but to no avail. Even without an agreement, many inside and outside the administration have hoped Obama would state publicly how many forces he'd like to see in Afghanistan, a step the president has refused to take. White House officials didn't see this weekend's visit as the right time to make that kind of announcement -- not with Karzai, with whom Obama maintains a frosty relationship, still in the presidential palace.
The question of how many troops to keep in Afghanistan beyond the end of the year has split the White House and the Pentagon. Many senior military commanders have asked for 15,000 troops and signaled that they needed at least 10,000. Administration officials, by contrast, have hinted that they were only prepared to sign off on a much smaller force of between 3,000 and 5,000 troops.
The question of what the troops would do is, to many involved in the debate, just as important as the troop level question itself. Many who believe the U.S. should maintain a robust force there after this year think it is critical to keep the Afghan national security forces a greater chance for success. U.S. forces would likely train and assist those forces and potentially provide capabilities they don't yet possess, including drones and other aircraft that could be used for medical evacuations, close air support and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
Michael Sheehan, a former Pentagon official, told a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week that "perhaps 10,000 [troops] or some other number that is kicked around may be enough, but we need to have the right forces there in order to sustain that operation."
Beyond the vexing questions about troop levels and missions, Obama still has to find a way of working with Karzai during the Afghan leader's last months in office. Washington and Kabul have abandoned any attempt to hide the frayed relationship between the two leaders. Obama didn't meet with Karzai during his short visit to Afghanistan, and Karzai declined Obama's invitation to join him at Bagram. Karzai's office released a brief statement hinting at the cold relations. "The president of Afghanistan said that he was ready to warmly welcome the president of the United States in accordance with Afghan traditions... but had no intention of meeting him at Bagram."
However, Obama did call Karzai from Air Force One after departing. The American president praised the progress the Afghan National Security Forces have been making and congratulated Karzai on the relative success of the recent elections to find his successor.
The White House has been eager for the Afghan presidential elections to settle on a new leader. But the election last month did not determine a clear winner; a runoff is scheduled for next month. There remain only two contenders: Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. Both have indicated they would sign a security agreement with the U.S. immediately after taking office.
Obama, who was accompanied by country star Brad Paisley, praised the troops for their sacrifice and then proceeded to tick off the list of objectives they had achieved. That included "reversing the Taliban's momentum" and strengthening the capacity of Afghan forces - both of which Obama said had been accomplished. Obama insisted that the status of al-Qaeda had been diminished, a contention belied, at least in part, by the militant group's ability to establish violent new affiliates in places like Syria, and by new State Department data showing a sharp uptick in the number of terror attacks and terror-related fatalities around the world.
"We said that we were going to deny al Qaeda safe haven," Obama said. "And since then, we have decimated the al Qaeda leadership in the tribal regions, and our troops here at Bagram played a central role in supporting our counterterrorism operations...al Qaeda is on its heels in this part of the world, and that's because of you."
Still, Obama acknowledged that the fight against the organization globally is far from over.
"The al Qaeda leadership may be on the ropes, but in other regions of the world al Qaeda affiliates are evolving and pose a serious threat," he said. "We're going to have to stay strong and we're going to have to stay vigilant."
U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez