President Barack Obama speaks to troops Tuesday during a visit to Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Obama signed a U.S.-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement during his unannounced visit to the country.
An effort by President Barack Obama to highlight his efforts to wind down the war in Afghanistan drew criticism from some skeptical conservative Republicans who saw it as an effort to score political points ahead of the November elections.
This skepticism was crystallized by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, who said the unannounced trip to Afghanistan on the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden was part of the president’s effort bolster his national security credentials.
He likened it to the president’s recent visit to three colleges to urge Congress to pass legislation to avert a doubling of the interest rate on Stafford loans. Because Republicans also want to head off the rate increases, Inhofe said, it showed that the president was looking to pick fights where there were none in order to demonize the GOP.
“Obama’s last visit was in December 2010, and the last time he addressed the nation about Afghanistan was June 2011,” Inhofe said in a release. “Clearly this trip is campaign-related. We’ve seen recently that President Obama has visited college campuses in an attempt to win back the support of that age group since he has lost it over the last three years.”
“Unfortunately, this president has allowed Washington and campaign politics to dictate his strategy in Afghanistan rather than the conditions on the ground,” Inhofe said.
But in a speech tonight from Afghanistan, Obama indicated his trip was designed to mark transition to the end of the war with the signing of the strategic partnership agreement.
“Today I signed a historic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that defines a new kind of relationship between our countries; a future in which Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation and we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states. A future in which war ends and a new chapter begins,” Obama said.
Senior administration officials said the timing of the trip was the result of finishing the SPA, which pledges support for 10 years after the 2014 drawdown.
Finished in recent weeks and signed earlier today in the presidential palace in Kabul, the SPA provides a long-term framework for the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan after the drawdown of U.S. forces and details how their partnership will be normalized as the war comes to an end.
The SPA was negotiated over 20 months said and was wrapped in recent weeks, administration officials said. Both Obama and President Hamid Karzai wanted to sign it before a NATO conference scheduled for May 21 in Chicago.
The two further wanted to symbolically sign the agreement on Afghan soil to demonstrate the U.S.’s commitment to Afghan sovereignty, the officials said.
The administration officials also said the president had long sought to spend the anniversary of bin Laden’s death with the troops and celebrate the accomplishment with them.
Along with the SPA, he also highlighted plan for ending the war, which has five elements.
Those are: transitioning to an Afghan lead by 2014, training Afghan security forces so that they can provide for the security of Afghanistan, building an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, pursuing reconciliation with members of the Taliban interested in doing so and promoting regional stability.
“We must finish the job we started in Afghanistan and end this war responsibly,” Obama said. “We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan while delivering justice to al-Qaida.”
Other Republicans were more supportive.
“I am pleased that the President has traveled to Afghanistan,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a release. “This is a significant opportunity for him to hear directly from our military commanders and troops on the ground about the significant progress we are making in this fight.”
“I would urge the President to return from this visit and spend more time speaking directly with the American people about the vital national security interests at stake in Afghanistan and the need for the United States to remain strongly engaged there in the years ahead,” McCain said.
While the White House said politics were not involved in the decision, senior Congressional Democrats took the time to underscore Obama’s strategic victory of taking out al-Qaida’s top leader a year ago.
“One year ago, President Obama gave the order that brought Osama bin Laden to justice,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “That day, terrorist organizations that threaten our country received an unmistakable message: The United States will act against those that wish to harm us and attack our way of life.”
“While al-Qaida’s leader is gone, the organization remains a threat and is motivated to bring harm to our nation, and we will never hesitate to use the full extent of our power to stop the threat of terrorism,” Reid said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “One year ago, with the death of Osama bin Laden, President Obama sent a clear message that we will pursue those who intend to do our nation harm and will never lose focus on our responsibility to keep our nation safe.”
“President Obama has reiterated his commitment to the security of the American people and to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly,” Pelosi noted.
Pelosi also noted that the SPA is a step, which she has advocated, toward ending the war. “Many of us in Congress have been steadfast in expressing our opposition to an extended military presence in Afghanistan; this agreement moves us toward the day when all U.S. troops have been brought safely home,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.