President Obama won't lose any sleep over criticism that his address to U.S. troops in Afghanistan on the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death was political theater. Nor should he.
Obama's visit wasn't nearly the gaffe that a flight-suit-clad President George W. Bush made with his pre-election-year speech beneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in 2003. Bush declared "major combat" in Iraq was over. But the worst was yet to come.
Hostilities in Afghanistan aren't anywhere near being over either. But what Obama had to say provided more evidence that he intends to adhere to a schedule that should have most U.S. troops out of that country within two years. He and President Hamid Karzai signed an agreement toward that end.
"Within this framework, we will work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014: counter-terrorism and continued training. But we will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people," said Obama.
That's what most Americans want to hear. The public had become war weary before bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals in a daring raid on his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Now that the original reason for invading Afghanistan — to capture or kill the initiator of the 9/11 attacks — is no longer valid, most people (78 percent in the last Fox News poll) want U.S. troops to come home.
The 10-year war has taken the lives of more than 1,900 American soldiers and left more than 12,000 wounded, with most of those casualties occurring since 2009. A nation that is still trying to shake off a recession is currently spending $289 million a day in Afghanistan, and has spent $634 billion there since 2001.
Such sums will matter in a presidential election pundits are predicting will be all about the economy. But Obama knows he can't just leave Afghanistan. He's trying to gain some assurance that it won't revert to the same haven for terrorists that drew bin Laden. In that regard, he noted that direct discussions with the Taliban to broker a lasting peace are ongoing.
Obama was careful not to prematurely declare a victory that has yet to be achieved. He narrowly defined his version of victory — "to defeat al-Qaeda and deny it a base to rebuild" — and then said only that the goal was "within reach." He pledged that the United States will remain Afghanistan's partner far into the future, but he made no specific military commitment.
That so much is unknown is in great part due to the murkiness surrounding Karzai's government, which has yet to reach a level of competency that instills confidence in its ability to prevent the Taliban from taking over again after U.S. troops leave. With Karzai unable by law to run for a third term in 2014, it's hard to make any predictions about what lies ahead for Afghanistan.
As if to make that point, suicide bombers killed seven people near Kabul just hours after Obama had left the capital. A Taliban spokesman said the attack was "a message for Obama." More messages can be expected.