By Amie Parnes - 05/01/12 09:12 PM EDT
President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday to sign an agreement on the post-war role for the United States in Afghanistan.
The trip also served as a victory lap for Obama, as Tuesday marked the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing at the hands of a team of U.S. Navy Seals.
Obama a year ago ordered the mission to kill bin Laden, who was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led the United States to invade Afghanistan more than a decade ago.
Obama signed the agreement with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday afternoon. He declared it "a historic moment for our two nations."
The president said that neither Americans nor the Afghan people asked for this war, "yet for a decade we've stood together."
"I'm here to affirm the bond between our two countries and to thank Americans and Afghans who have sacrificed so much over these last 10 years," he said.
"Today with the signing of the strategic partnership agreement we look forward to a future of peace," Obama continued. "Today we're agreeing to be long-term partners."
Still, Obama acknowledged, "There will be difficult days ahead."
But he expressed confidence that Afghan forces will "grow stronger and the Afghan people will take control of their future."
Obama's trip comes as his general-election campaign heats up. He is using his decision to order Navy SEALs into Pakistan to kill bin Laden as a cornerstone of his reelection bid, and his campaign has attacked likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, saying his past statements suggest he would not have ordered the mission.
The trip also coincides with a turning point in the Afghanistan war, the more than decade-long conflict that began with an invasion of the Taliban-held country just months after more than 3,000 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks.
The strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan paves the way for all U.S. troops to leave the country at the end of 2014. Obama had wanted to sign the agreement, reached after 20 months of negotiations, before a NATO summit he will host next week in Chicago.
Obama left on the surprise trip just after midnight on Tuesday morning and landed in Afghanistan just after 11 p.m. local time after a 13-hour flight. He landed by helicopter near the presidential palace.
Senior administration officials say Obama's late-night arrival was planned around allowing Obama the time to address Americans back home in the evening in a 10-minute speech. It will be 4 a.m. local time when Obama addresses the nation.
But the arrival in the cloak of darkness also allowed Obama to land safely in the war-torn region, where anti-American sentiment has heightened in recent months in the wake of the accidental burning of Korans and other incidents.
After arriving, he was greeted by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Lieutenant Mike Scaparotti and headed directly for the presidential palace in Kabul.
Later, in a brief speech to U.S. troops at Bagram, Obama credited the soldiers for helping to bring bin Laden "to justice."
"That could have only happened because of each and every one of you," he said.
The president said there’s work left to be done in Afghanistan but commended the troops for helping to drive al Qaeda out of the country.
“There’s a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices you’ve made,” Obama said.
The timing of the trip was driven by the negotiations over the agreement and the desire by both men to sign the deal before the NATO summit, senior administration officials said.
At the same time, the administration officials also said that the timing coincides with the one-year anniversary of bin Laden's death. Obama will briefly make mention of the anniversary during his televised address, officials said. The trip to Afghanistan is Obama's third as president.
Senate Armed Forces Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who had traveled separately to Afghanistan, were also on hand for the signing of the agreement.
Levin called the deal “a significant step forward for the United States and our national security.”
“Tonight’s agreement will help bring about an Afghanistan that is more secure from al Qaeda’s return and from Taliban domination,” Levin said. “It was an especially powerful moment to witness what I believe will be a big step toward ending a long war that has demanded so much sacrifice from the men and women who serve our nation and their families.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been a frequent critic of Obama’s policies in Afghanistan, said he was “hopeful” the agreement would “send a signal to friends and enemies in the region that the United States is committed to a secure and free Afghanistan.”
“I hope the President's speech tonight will emphasize the degree of our commitment in Afghanistan, rather than the plans for withdrawal,” McCain said.
The dramatic trip comes on the heels of criticism by Republicans that Obama has “spiked the football,” trumpeting the anniversary of bin Laden’s death as the general election cranks up a notch.
Romney on Tuesday congratulated Obama on the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death, but also criticized an Obama campaign video released last week that suggested Romney would not have made the same call to order for the bin Laden mission. The video asked: ‘”Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?”
Romney — who marked the anniversary with a visit to a New York firehouse alongside former Big Apple Mayor Rudy Giuliani — said it was “very disappointing for the president to try and make this a political item.”
Obama denied politicizing the bin Laden raid on Monday.
“I hardly think you’ve seen any excessive celebration taking place here,” Obama said at a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. “I think the American people remember rightly what we as country accomplished in bringing to justice someone who killed 3,000 of our citizens.”
Obama said the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death would mark a time “for some reflection to give thanks to those who participated" and is “entirely appropriate and that’s what’s taken place.”
The president also pounced on Romney’s earlier comments in 2007 when he said it was not worth “moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person."
Asked about Romney’s comments, Obama said he would “just recommend that everyone take a look at people’s previous statements.
“I assume that people meant what they said when they said it,” Obama said. “That's at least been my practice. I said I'd go after bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him ... and I did.
“If there are others who said one thing and now said they'd do something else, I'd let them explain it,” he said.
This story was posted at 2:59 p.m. and last updated at 5:51 p.m.