President Obama, in Afghanistan after a 13-hour flight shrouded in secrecy, will address the nation Tuesday night after meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and signing a strategic agreement that helps clear the way for eventual U.S. withdrawal from the war-torn country. His address, expected to last 10 minutes, will be at 7:30 p.m. EDT.
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The trip coincides with the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, and Obama has faced intensifying criticism from Republicans and their allies in the conservative media, who have accused him of "spiking the football." In going to Afghanistan on what is also the ninth anniversary of the most notorious example of premature presidential gloating, Obama risks turning the high point of his presidency into a political weapon for his enemies. But it will be how the president conducts himself while in the war zone that will determine if this trip is lumped in with George W. Bush's donning of a flight suit and appearing on an aircraft carrier under a "Mission Accomplished" banner.
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Obama has a legitimate reason for the trip, his third to Afghanistan as president. The strategic agreement he is signing is an important and needed step on the road to eventual American withdrawal from a war that has dragged on for a decade. And relations with the Afghan government have been sufficiently frayed as to require some face-to-face mending. Additionally, it is never inappropriate for the commander in chief to visit troops under fire to remind them that the nation remembers them and honors their service.
That puts the burden on the president to make the visit about the troops and about U.S.-Afghan relations and not about the anniversary of bin Laden's death.
Obama arrived at Bagram Air Base just outside Kabul at 10:20 p.m. Afghan time and immediately went to the presidential palace for talks with Karzai. His arrival was under cover of darkness, the timing a part of the extraordinary security arrangements.
The agreement the two presidents will sign is a 10-page blueprint for a continuing relationship between the two countries even after American and NATO troops end their combat role in 2014. In addition to the importance of having the president arrive in the dark, senior administration officials said the timing was planned to allow the president to address the nation at a time convenient for Americans. Despite the tight security, the officials insisted that security in Afghanistan has improved considerably in the last two years. But the talks with Karzai come against a backdrop of recent tensions arising from the accidental burning by U.S. troops of copies of the Koran and some instances of Afghan troops killing Americans.
An Obama administration official told National Journal the strategic partnership agreement does not include specific dollar amounts of military or economic aid — or any details about how many American troops will remain in the country after the U.S. combat role ends in 2014.
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Instead, the official said the "general document" lays out the framework for the long-term relationship between Washington and Kabul — which will include military activities, like continued U.S. training and equipping of local forces, and counterterrorism operations.
Sara Sorcher contributed contributed to this article
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