By Mario Trujillo - 05/25/14 03:00 PM EDT
President Obama said he stands "in awe" of the military's service while vowing a "responsible end" to the United States war in Afghanistan by the end of the year.
During a speech at Bagram Airfield during an unannounced trip to Afghanistan, Obama said the United States is at a pivotal moment after a decade of war. Al Qaeda is on its heels in the Middle East, he said, but affiliates in other regions of the world are "evolving and pose a serious threat.”
Obama landed at the base Sunday after making a secret trip to the country the night before. He was expected to stay only a few hours on Memorial Day weekend.
Referencing his recent trip to the newly opened 9/11 museum in New York, Obama said the United States would never forget why troops are in Afghanistan.
"Once again, we resolved to never forget what happened on that September day and do everything in our power to prevent something like that from ever happening again," he said. “That is why you are here."
"Along with our intelligence personnel, you have helped prevent attacks and save American lives back home,” he added. “Al Qaeda is on its heels in this part of the world. And that is because of you."
The president said, however, the United States commitment to Afghanistan would not cease when its combat mission is finished at the end of the year.
He said he is hopeful a bilateral security agreement will be reached with Afghanistan after its presidential runoff elections later this year that would allow a small number of U.S. forces to remain in the country. During a briefing ahead of the speech, Obama said the administration was likely to announce a decision on future troop levels "fairly shortly."
"We want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win,” he said. “And we are going to make sure that Afghanistan can never again, ever be used again to launch an attack against our country."
More than 32,000 U.S. troops remain in the country. Obama said the United States' commitment to them and other returning veterans is just beginning. He called it a "sacred obligation," without explicitly referencing the ongoing scandal regarding long wait times at Veteran Affairs facilities in the states.
"We are going to stay strong by taking care of our wounded warriors and our veterans, because helping our wounded warriors and veterans heal is not just a promise. It is a sacred obligation," Obama said, pointing to transitional programs to help veterans like the GI bill.