“The goal that I set, to defeat Al Qaeda and deny it the chance to rebuild, is now within our reach,” he said.
But he said that even as he carries out a troop withdrawal, American forces will continue to help the Afghans, “and fight alongside them when needed.”
Lest anybody miss the point, the document Mr. Obama signed with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan during the whirlwind visit was formally titled the “Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement.” It is meant to address the United States’ role even after the American-led alliance ends its combat role in 2014.
“This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end,” he said in a speech laden with references to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the nation’s response to it.
The speech did not lay out any new timetable for what Mr. Obama said was the goal for Afghanistan: “a future in which war ends and a new chapter begins.”
“Our troops will be coming home,” Mr. Obama said. “Last year, we removed 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Another 23,000 will leave by the end of the summer. After that, reductions will continue at a steady pace, with more of our troops coming home. And as our coalition agreed, by the end of 2014 the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country.”
It was almost prime time in Washington, and the wee hours of the morning in Afghanistan, when President Obama spoke live on television.
His message would certainly be seen live by millions of Americans and very few Afghans. But it had to be addressed to both.
His American audience is attuned not only to the echoes of the strike in neighboring Pakistan that killed Bin Laden last May, but also to the way Mr. Obama’s management of two wars is playing in this year’s presidential campaign.
“I recognize that many Americans are tired of war,” he said. “I will not keep Americans in harm’s way a single day longer than is absolutely required for our national security. But we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan, and end this war responsibly.”
He emphasized that the goals are limited. “To build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban,” he said, would “require many more years, many more dollars, and most importantly, many more American lives.”
“Our goal is to destroy Al Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that,” he said.
In political terms, the emphasis was on bringing two wars to a close.
“We have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war,” he said. “Yet here, in the predawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq war is over. The number of our troops in harm’s way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon.”
His Afghan audience, and the government of President Karzai, with whom he signed the strategic partnership, is focused on questions of stability after the Americans depart.
“You will not stand alone,” he said to them. The new agreement “establishes the basis of our cooperation over the next decade, including shared commitments to combat terrorism and strengthen democratic institutions.”
Earlier, in an appearance with Mr. Karzai, Mr. Obama had declared, “I am confident that the Afghan people will understand that the United States will stand by them.”
And in a visit with the troops, he told them, too, that the American withdrawal would be an honorable one.
“We’re not going to do it overnight. We’re not going to do it irresponsibly,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re going to make sure that the gains, the hard-fought gains that have been made, are preserved.”
Any details about the exact pace of the withdrawal are unlikely to come before the November elections.
The agreement deals not only with military and security issues, but also with assistance in building Afghanistan’s economy and its democracy, both of which are frail. It allows a vestigial American military presence without committing either side to numbers, and it gives Afghanistan sovereignty without cutting it loose entirely from the United States as a sponsor and mentor.
“We will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains,” Mr. Obama said in his televised speech.
A White House fact sheet noted that “the Strategic Partnership Agreement itself does not commit the United States to any specific troop levels or levels of funding in the future, as those are decisions will be made in consultation with the U.S. Congress. It does, however, commit the United States to seek funding from Congress on an annual basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of Afghan National Security Forces, as well as for social and economic assistance.”
And some details have to be worked out with the other allies who are about to meet in Chicago to map the way forward to 2014, when NATO’s full engagement in Afghanistan is to give way to something that, even with this new partnership agreement in hand, remains only loosely defined.