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Obama, Karzai Sign Partnership Pact In Afghanistan


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep with David Greene in Washington.


And I'm Renee Montagne in Kabul. Here in the capital of Afghanistan this morning, an attack by Taliban militants has left several people dead outside a compound housing American and international aid workers. We'll hear more about that in a few minutes. The attack came shortly after a surprise trip to Afghanistan by President Obama. He was here to sign a new, long-term partnership agreement with Afghanistan and mark, in the presence of American troops, the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death. NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Midnight is an unusual hour for a diplomatic ceremony. But neither President Obama nor his Afghan host, Hamid Karzai, seemed to mind, as they inked a strategic partnership agreement inside Karzai's walled palace in Kabul. Mr. Obama says the agreement commits the U.S. to remain a friend and partner to Afghanistan long after the last combat troops have left.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The agreement we signed today sends a clear message to the Afghan people. As you stand up, you will not stand alone.

HORSLEY: The new agreement does not promise any specific financial support for Afghanistan, though, nor any specific military presence. In a televised speech to a prime-time American audience, Mr. Obama stressed the 10,000 American troops who've already left Afghanistan and the many more who will be coming home over the next two-and-a-half years.

OBAMA: Our goal is not to build a country in America's image or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and most importantly, many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al-Qaida and we are on a path to do exactly that.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama gave much of the credit for that to U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. Shortly after the signing ceremony, he met with a crowd of uniformed troops at Bagram Air Base.

OBAMA: Slowly and systematically we have been able to decimate the ranks of al-Qaida. And a year ago we were able to finally bring Osama bin Laden to justice.


HORSLEY: The surprise visit to Afghanistan came one year to the day after Mr. Obama announced bin Laden's killing. Last night's speech had a very different backdrop - military vehicles instead of the stately White House East Room. Mr. Obama said it was an appropriate place to mark the anniversary.

OBAMA: It was here in Afghanistan where al-Qaida brought new recruits, trained them and plotted acts of terror. It was here from within these borders that al-Qaida launched the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 innocent men, women, and children.

HORSLEY: Long before he was killed, of course, bin Laden fled Afghanistan for neighboring Pakistan. Military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says that's now the real hub for al-Qaida in the region.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: We have to remember that if we're truly concerned about terrorism and the challenges of 9/11, it's never going to be adequate for the president or anyone else to talk about Afghanistan. You have to talk about Pakistan and the overall stability in the region.

HORSLEY: Cordesman is also skeptical of claims that Afghan military forces are capable of securing their own country. The administration says Afghan forces are already moving into the lead in parts of the country where nearly half the population lives. And NATO forces are set to meet in Chicago later this month to make additional plans for troop drawdowns. Cordesman says the allies may have to settle for a more limited goal in which only parts of the country are protected. He calls that option Afghan Good Enough.

CORDESMAN: That means essentially a much less stable Afghanistan, but it's one which is much more affordable and where the parts that are under government control and are more supportive of the government have some chance of surviving this process of transition.

HORSLEY: U.S. officials acknowledge the challenges ahead. Whatever we do, one said yesterday, Afghanistan is still going to be the third poorest country in the world, with a 70 percent illiteracy rate and some huge sectarian schisms. Still, Mr. Obama says it's time for a new kind of relationship with Afghanistan. He sees the beginning of a new chapter there, even if U.S. and Afghan forces haven't quite closed the book on the last one.

Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.