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President Obama Makes a Surprise Visit to Afghanistan

Aired May 1, 2012 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": I'm Wolf Blitzer. Thirty minutes from now the president of the United States will address the American people.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "AC 360": Welcome to CNN's breaking news coverage of President Obama's surprise visit to Afghanistan. I'm Anderson Cooper reporting from New York. Wolf is joining us from Washington.

The president will be telling us about the new strategic partnership agreement he has just signed with Afghanistan's president outlining the areas of cooperation between the United States and Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. forces the end of 2014. Now White House officials tell us the timing of today's visit was driven by the negotiations over that agreement at an upcoming NATO summit. Critics will say it is about politics, at least in part, acknowledge everyone knows today is the first anniversary of the U.S. raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is joining us now live from Kabul. Nick, on the ground, how -- I mean do people there -- are they aware that President Obama is on the ground? Are people in Kabul, the capital aware of this?

NICK PATON, WALSH CNN CORRESPONDENT: Late in the evening -- I should say late in the afternoon the sun went down there was a report on Afghan media suggesting that he was already in Kabul. (INAUDIBLE) very quickly by U.S. and Afghan officials and frankly since then we have seen absolute silence across the city occasionally broken by helicopters moving around it. That is presumably some part of the presidential passage in and out of the capital, but I think most Afghans will first hear this news waking up tomorrow.

But the speech we are about to hear in the next half hour I think will in its tone being (INAUDIBLE) excerpts we've heard which says this time of war began in Afghanistan and this is where it will end. But there are two bits of the speech which really stand out to me suggesting new White House thinking or new elements of White House thinking further suggesting that Afghans will take the lead in combat operations next year.

Something akin to that, but not spoken about by President Obama and another issue of contention, too, in which he suggests, President Obama will suggest the pace of withdrawing troops will continue steadily after the first chunk of withdrawals this year. That is a little different than what the (INAUDIBLE) commander here, General John Allen, wanted which is to keep U.S. troop levels at 68,000 throughout next year. So we are beginning to see perhaps the suggestion just to how the White House would like to see troop levels reduced in the year ahead -- Anderson.

COOPER: And Nick, there are about 88 to 90,000 U.S. forces on the ground right now in Afghanistan, about 20 to 22,000 are supposed to leave by the end of the summer, September. Those are the so-called surge forces which would leave as you mentioned, about 68,000. And according to this, according to the time table the president has set out they are all supposed to leave except for Special Forces and quick reaction forces by the end of 2014. Will there be according to this agreement permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan after that?

WALSH: I don't think anybody really doubts that there will be a permanent U.S. presence here some point after 2014. The question is what conditions, how many, what kind of permanent basis. The reason I think still this large question mark hanging over what legal status reporters will have. Remember U.S. forces couldn't really stay around in Iraq because they weren't given immunity from Iraqi law. That is not something which Kabul and Washington have really addressed between them at this point, but there is still another agreement outside of this strategic partnership agreement which has to address the American military presence after 2014 (INAUDIBLE) Anderson.

COOPER: Nick, appreciate the reporting from Kabul. We'll continue checking with you throughout the evening. Again, we are anticipating the president speaking about 30 to 40 minutes from now. We of course are going to bring that to you live. Wolf, obviously disagreement while having some details is largely symbolic. There are a lot of details particularly the financing moving forward after 2014 that are not spelled out. There is going to be another meeting of NATO countries coming up in Chicago where they hope to get financial commitments from NATO countries, but as you know, Wolf, over the last couple of years it has been difficult to get other NATO countries to live up some of their verbal commitments to troop levels and financing for operations in Afghanistan.

BLITZER: Yes, it's going to be -- it's going to be really hard as you know Anderson to get the European allies, many of whom are going through such tough economic times right now to come up with the billions of dollars that the Afghans will certainly want. They have gotten used to hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. assistance over these past 10 years or so. They are going to want that to continue. They're not going to want some of the downside, but they will certainly take the cash.

Let's go to the White House right now. Brianna Keilar is watching what's going on. Chris Lawrence is over at the Pentagon. Brianna, first to you, we've got some excerpts from what the president is going to say. He is putting -- he's putting an optimistic note on what he says is the beginning of the end of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, putting an optimistic note, Wolf. We expect him to say this time a war began in Afghanistan and this is where it will all end. So part of it trying to come full circle and stressing that he has made good on one of his pledges here in this election year. But also, Wolf, you know it's really interesting to understand just how all of this is pulled off because this day and age it's pretty hard for most people to hide for 13 plus hours. You can imagine how difficult that is when you are talking about the president of the United States. I just want to sort of pull back the screen and give you a sense of what that takes.

First off the president left under the cover of night. He left late last night and the White House achieved this in part by putting out a bit of a fake schedule. It really fooled a lot of people. I'll tell you I didn't know until today that he was in Afghanistan. So they put out a fake schedule not just to buy the president some time. This schedule said that he was in meetings all day basically, but also to buy White House Press Secretary Jay Carney some time because we are used to having him briefed most days.

He frequently gives a briefing around 12:30 or 1:00. Well they were still traveling at that point so today's briefing was at 3:00. I think some people thought that was unusual, but maybe not too unusual so it wasn't really questioned. And then obviously it takes some planning to pull off something like this. The White House looped in a very small group of people from different news outlets who were involved in the pool of journalists who have to travel with President Obama.

They stressed secrecy and out of respect for that these news outlets including CNN who found out you know we had some folks who found out over the weekend, they respect that and don't disclose it. CNN and other outlets then even though more people it kind of became more of a wide net of people who knew they respect that and they don't say until President Obama was on the ground today that he indeed was in Afghanistan -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, that -- it was obviously a very, very sensitive security related mission for the president of the United States. Air Fleischer was the press secretary for President Bush. Ari, you were once involved in a dangerous sensitive mission like this by President Bush to the war zone.

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY FOR PRES. BUSH: Actually, Wolf, I left the White House in July of '03. President Bush's trip was in November of 2003, a Thanksgiving trip, but I sure do know a lot about it.

BLITZER: What do you think about the way the president is handling this right now?

FLEISCHER: Listen I think the president is doing the appropriate thing here. This is what presidents do. This is the power you come and see. It's what the commander in chief should do to go to the war zone, to thank the troops. And I have no objection to it being on the one year anniversary of the killing of bin Laden. I think the president actually could have been on a three-day roll if he hadn't attacked Mitt Romney in that ad. That was the only mistake he made, but he has every right to talk about what he is doing as our commander in chief. This is the president's prerogative.

BLITZER: Excellent point. I want to go to Dana Bash up on Capitol Hill right now. Dana, what is the reaction you are getting up there to this surprise presidential mission?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know by and large Republicans including Republican leaders are keeping their powder dry. And their aides have told us that they are not going to say anything at least until the president speaks maybe even after that. You've been quoting Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma saying that this is a campaign speech but he really is the exception so far.

And Wolf, I did speak exclusively to Senator John McCain before he left here to go on a foreign trip of his own. And remember of course John McCain was not only the president's rival in the last campaign. He's one of Mitt Romney's chief surrogates and he was very outspoken about how angry he was about what he called a political -- too political ad that the president put out about Osama bin Laden, but on this particular trip he had a very different take.


BASH: What do you think about the president's surprise secretive trip to Afghanistan?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Well I think it's a good thing. I think it's always good when the president goes to where young men and women are in harm's way. And I think that many of us who have been involved in Afghanistan are very supportive of the strategic partnership agreement which I'm sure he will be talking about. And we think the agreement is good. We obviously would like to know the details.

BASH: Senator, you have been very outspoken, very critical of what the president did recently politically with an ad boasting about getting Osama bin Laden and hitting Mitt Romney for it. Do you think that this trip is also part of his political campaign?

MCCAIN: No. I can't accuse the president of that. A lot of people both here in Congress including Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Lieberman worked on this strategic partnership agreement and it is important that we send the message to friends and enemies alike that the United States has a long-term commitment to Afghanistan.

BASH: So this is not spiking the football in the end zone as he said?

MCCAIN: No, I don't -- I don't view it as that and I wish the president would explain more often to the American people why Afghanistan and it's important that Afghanistan not return to a base for attacks on the United States of America.


BASH: And Wolf that is one of the key reasons I think we are not hearing more criticism from Republicans about this trip because we have heard so often from Republicans that the president is not talking enough about Afghanistan. In fact he has not made a major speech about this war since June of 2011 almost a year ago and our (INAUDIBLE) spoke with the Republican chair of the House Armed Services Committee and that's a key point that he made that he wishes the president talked more about this war and about the good things that are actually happening that the troops are doing.

And one last thing and another reason I believe that the Republicans are keeping their powder dry, not criticizing the president is because this strategic partnership agreement that he signed is something that Republicans like John McCain, like Lindsey Graham really have been urging him to do because it makes clear that the U.S. presence will stay after combat troops come out in 2014.

BLITZER: That is music to the ears of a lot of conservative Republicans, but there is almost a thunder of silence coming in right now, Dana, from a lot of liberal Democrats who hate the fact that there is this kind of long-term commitment to Afghanistan. I want to bring in Donna Brazile right now. Donna, it is pretty interesting to me and I wonder if it is to you that Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator John McCain, all these Republicans are praising the president's 10- year plus commitment to Afghanistan but you are not hearing that kind of praise coming in from a lot of your fellow liberal Democrats.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well Wolf, I think because many of the liberal Democrats and others are just you know right now celebrating the fact that we are reaching a very important milestone. Look President Obama said two years ago when he met with President Karzai that he -- they would come up with this historic agreement. Now we see the outlines of it. We know that there will be more details at it in terms of troop levels and funding once Congress is involved in this, but they also made an agreement that this historic decision would be made in Afghanistan at least the signing would be in Afghanistan prior to the summit in Chicago on May 21st.

But we spent so much time talking about the raid and a year ago, I think we should once again applaud our national security officials for the outstanding work that they did a year ago. And of course I continue to praise the president's leadership in making that tough decision. But right now we should hear from the president to see where do we go from here and what will it require of the American people, because when you look at the numbers, Wolf, and we always talk about polls the American people are war weary. They are ready to bring our troops home. They're tired of this engagement and I think the president will have to make the case tonight in why we have to continue to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

BLITZER: Yes, there will be a small number presumably after 2014 but for the next 2.5 years there will be tens of thousands of American troops and tens of billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer money that will continue to flow to Afghanistan to maintain that military presence. That's what a lot of Democrats don't want to hear and plenty of Republicans as well. The president is going to have his work cut out for him in making this address coming up in about 15 or 20 minutes or so from now. Our special coverage continues right after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Hey welcome back to our continuing cover of President Obama's surprise trip to Afghanistan. You are looking at pictures of President Obama's helicopter arriving in Bagram Air Base before taking him to Kabul where he went and signed the strategic partnership agreement with Afghan's President -- Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. We are going to bring you the president's live address.

We anticipate that in about 20 minutes or so from Bagram Air Base where he will be addressing, talking in front of troops, an address to the American people. Our coverage is going to be continuing on through the 8:00 hour, as well, our special coverage of this surprise trip, what it means for the United States, for troop levels, for all those families who have sacrificed so much of loved ones in harm's way, right now, when they will be coming home. What is the time table and what is the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan in moving forward? We've learned more about that tonight, a lot to talk about. Erin Burnett joins us now as well -- Erin.

ERIN BURNETT, HOST, "OUTFRONT": And of course Anderson, you know as we talk about this there is no coincidence in terms of the timing. The president's trip comes just a year after U.S. Navy SEALs gunned down Osama bin Laden and joining me now CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen. His latest book is "MANHUNT: The Ten Year Search for bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad", also with us CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend, homeland security adviser to President Bush and serves on the CIA and Homeland Security External Advisory Boards.

Peter I know you interviewed Osama bin Laden. You spent time with him. You have met him. You just -- we know that the president is going to talk in his speech which is going to begin in a few moments, the excerpts we have. He is going to talk about having successfully decimated al Qaeda -- true?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. I mean according to counter terrorism officials there are now only two real leaders of the organization left because of the efforts of people like Fran Townsend under the Bush administration where particularly in the last six months of the administration a lot of senior members of al Qaeda were killed in drone strikes. And then you know President Obama authorized the quintupling of a number of drone strikes and we know -- I looked at some of the documents in the Abbottabad compound and bin Laden himself was keenly aware of how damaging these drone strikes were to al Qaeda. He was actually advocating that his group move to Afghanistan, a very remote part of Afghanistan, which he thought was safer than the Pakistani tribal regions, which are the subject of so many drone strikes.

BURNETT: And Fran, we just heard -- it was interesting Dana Bash talking to John McCain and John McCain saying look I don't think that this is political because obviously some people are saying that a visit on the one year anniversary of the president seeking reelection would be political. John McCain said no. We worked on this security agreement with Afghanistan together. I worked on it. Lindsey Graham worked on it, worked on it with the president, safe to say that it's bipartisan and are you concerned by the fact that it doesn't detail the money that will be spent, the troops that will come home, when and the numbers?

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Absolutely. We ought to be concerned that it doesn't have those details, but we shouldn't be surprised, right? This took some 20 months to negotiate. It did take a bipartisan effort. And these agreements typically don't have those sorts of details in them. You know money has to be allocated by Congress. Troop levels will have to be decided not only on recommendations of the United States military but along working with our Afghan partners.


TOWNSEND: And so these things will have to be worked out depending on conditions on the ground and political support at home.

BURNETT: We have been talking a lot about what al Qaeda is now 10 years later, Peter. I know you've had a chance to look at some of the documents that were in the compound. Nic Robertson has talked about how they were plans possibly for attacks on cruise ships. There were all sorts of ideas that they had. What stood out to you? What did you see about where they are now, what they could be thinking of doing now?

BERGEN: Well let's -- if Osama bin Laden was here, what he would say if he actually was being honest, he would say I'm recommending that my 20-year-old son who is living in the Pakistani tribal regions move to Qatar. Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world per capita. It's also one of the safest. It's sort of the Switzerland to the Middle East. So bin Laden publicly may have been trying to recruit 20 year olds to his cause, but for his own son he was suggesting instead that he move to this very safe country. So I think those facts speak for themselves.

Bin Laden and his leadership, they're running out of money. They haven't had a successful attack in the West since seven attacks in London, seven years ago. Seventeen Americans have died in the United States because of jihadi terrorism since 9/11. More Americans die in their bathtubs, accidentally drowning by considerable numbers every year. We don't have an irrational fear of bathtub drownings. We shouldn't have an irrational fear --

BURNETT: So do you think that victory is safe to say --

BERGEN: That's right.

BURNETT: As Fareed was indicating the president may really be declaring tonight?

BERGEN: I don't think he is going to declare victory because no politician -- what if you are even one percent wrong. Politically it's impossible to actually say hey the war is over --

BURNETT: All right. All right and I just want to interrupt because this is a live picture of where the president will be approaching the podium in just a -- just a couple of moments. He is going to be coming here as you can see at Bagram Air Base The president will be addressing the nation in a live press conference at that podium in just a couple of moments. We are going to take a break and our coverage will continue right here on CNN.


BLITZER: Only about five or six minutes from now the president of the United States will address the American people from this location at the Bagram Air Base. Our special coverage continues right now.


ANNOUNCER: From the safe cocoon of the White House to expose danger of a war zone, a journey of nearly 7,000 miles in total secrecy for this.

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am here to affirm the bonds between our countries.

ANNOUNCER: President Obama's startling move on the anniversary of the bin Laden raid, a surprise visit to Afghanistan to announce a major turning point in the longest war in U.S. history.

OBAMA: Look forward to a future of peace and security and greater prosperity for our nations.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight details that couldn't be revealed until now, the secrets.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's pretty hard to hide the president of the United States.

ANNOUNCER: The safety risks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The challenge is once he was on the ground and everybody knew he was there to get him back out again.

ANNOUNCER: A presidential address, a milestone for U.S. troops, and perhaps a make or break moment in the race for the White House. This is a CNN special report, "Surprise Visit, Obama in Afghanistan".


BLITZER: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Once again I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

COOPER: And I'm Anderson Cooper in New York. We are covering the president's address to the nation. We anticipate him speaking in about 10 to 15 minutes. We of course are going to bring that address to you live. Joining me as well for our coverage is David Gergen, our Candy Crowley, also national security analyst Peter Bergen whose new book "MAN HUNT" about the hunt for Osama bin Laden has just been released. It's a fascinating read. David Gergen the strategic partnership agreement and you are looking at the live shot of where the president is going to be addressing any moment now and again we are going to bring that to you live. If the strategic partnership agreement is largely symbolic, if a lot of the details haven't yet been hammered out and won't be for some time what is the significance of the president going to Kabul to sign it today?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: There is important significance to it Anderson. The agreement is more than symbolic. It is crucially a statement by the United States that we are there for the long haul. As you know this nation has a reputation in the region for cutting and running. When people get tired here, public opinion turns against a conflict, we pull out. The Afghans -- Afghan people have felt that in particular here by going there and putting his personal presence on the line the president is sending an important signal. We are in there for at least a dozen years. There may not be many people at home who will like that. But you know we have been in a lot of nations for a long time. (INAUDIBLE) you know been in Korea here not long ago. We have been there a long, long time. We are in Afghanistan now I bet for a while.

COOPER: Peter Bergen, the strength of the Taliban the president talks a lot about al Qaeda in Afghanistan about being -- about being able to defeat them. But al Qaeda really has a tiny presence in Afghanistan as frankly as elsewhere the Taliban has been the primary enemy of the United States in Afghanistan for the last several years. And we just saw two weeks ago large scale attacks in Kabul, significant attacks by Taliban forces throughout Kabul that really struck fear and surprise into the hearts of a lot of people a lot of observers watching the situation in Afghanistan. I'll talk to Peter Bergen about that shortly.

Candy Crowley is also joining us now. The politics of this, Candy, are hard to escape. A lot of Republicans have not been criticizing the president at all for this trip. We heard John McCain saying politics weren't involved in this. He wants to hear more details about what comes out of it. Tomorrow do you expect to hear once the president is back, Republicans taking critical rhetorical shots at the president?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: (INAUDIBLE) I don't think so Anderson. I think it is significantly different to take this trip where the troops are. Look, you know there are these young men and women over there still dying, still bleeding, and for the president of the United States at some risk to go over there is a big deal. And I think that is so different from running a political ad wondering whether Mitt Romney actually would have OK'd the mission to go get Osama bin Laden. So I just think it is completely different this time.

COOPER: Our Wolf Blitzer is also joining us as we wait for the president to stand behind the podium -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Thanks. John King is here. Gloria Borger is here. Momentarily the president will be speaking. This is a speech that I'm sure White House officials have been working on for a long time.

JOHN KING, HOST, "JOHN KING USA": Yes, because negotiating this agreement took some time. It's a difficult policy challenge for the president. This has been a relationship with fits and starts, can't always trust President Karzai. Progress training the Afghan forces has been slow and at home the president has pressure from his liberal base to end this war last year or the year before. Now he wants to say we're going to bring most troops home, but leave some there for another decade. Republicans want to see the details. How many troops will there be? What are the rules of engagement? So he's got to look both to his left and his right in dealing with the policy and of course we are in an election year, so some people will say this is a political trip. The White House will say it's a policy trip. When you are on May 1st in an election year everything is viewed through a political prism.

BLITZER: And you won't hear the president say how many troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014. You won't hear the president say how much money the U.S. will have to spend in Afghanistan after 2014. Gloria, those issues have to be worked out.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, those issues have to be resolved but at least what this is, is a symbolic strategic embrace. It's actually a little bit more than symbolic. They're putting their names to something and what it says is that the United States is committing to keeping al Qaeda from emerging out of the shadows again, to fight another day in Afghanistan. And this is something that's very, very important to the people over there.

Everything the president does now, as John was saying, is seen within a political framework obviously because the election is coming up. This does give the president the opportunity to say he's wound down two unpopular wars, Iraq and Afghanistan.

BLITZER: He arrived in Afghanistan about five hours or so ago, and he's going to be leaving presumably right after this speech, all of it in darkness.

KING: All of it in darkness, because of security concerns.

But, Wolf, as we await the president to the point, again, this is a very important policy moment. The American people are tired of this decade of war, but this day has also been proof of the power of incumbency, if you will. The president made this trip. It is an important policy announcement. But he is now dominating the cycle.

That sends the message politically, too. He is the commander-in- chief. He's the president of the United States. When he goes around the world at risk, at risk, let's make light of that moment, but he can dominate the news cycle.

Mitt Romney was in New York today with Rudy Giuliani, might have gotten more attention except for this.

BLITZER: Yes. This president did take a risk in flying over to Afghanistan. He left at around 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time last night from Andrews Air Force base outside of Washington.

Got to the Bagram Airbase, about 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time. To do the math, about a 13 hour flight overseas, a very, very long flight. The president is walking into this location right now at Bagram. Here he comes. He is going to be speaking we assume for about 10 minutes. Here is the president.

OBAMA: Good evening from Bagram Air Base. This outpost is more than 7,000 miles from home, but for over a decade it's been close to our hearts. Because here, in Afghanistan, more than half a million of our sons and daughters have sacrificed to protect our country.

Today, I signed a historic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that defines a new kind of relationship between our countries, a future in which Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation, and we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states; a future in which war ends and a new chapter begins.

Tonight I'd like to speak to you about this transition. But first, let us remember why we came here. It was here, in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden established a safe haven for his terrorist organization. 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.

And so, 10 years ago, the United States and our allies went to war to make sure that Al Qaida could never again use this country to launch attacks against us.

Despite initial success, for a number of reasons, this war has taken longer than most anticipated. In 2002, bin Laden and his lieutenants escaped across the border and established safe haven in Pakistan. America spent nearly eight years fighting a different war in Iraq. And Al Qaida's extremist allies within the Taliban have waged a brutal insurgency.

But over the last three years, the tide has turned. We broke the Taliban's momentum. We've built strong Afghan Security Forces. We devastated Al Qaida's leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set to defeat Al Qaida and deny it a chance to rebuild is now within our reach.

Still, there will be difficult days ahead. The enormous sacrifices of our men and women are not over. But tonight, I'd like to tell you how we will complete our mission and end the war in Afghanistan.

First, we have begun a transition to Afghan responsibility for security. Already, nearly half of the Afghan people live in places where Afghan Security Forces are moving into the lead.

This month, at a NATO Summit in Chicago, our coalition will set a goal for Afghan forces to be in the lead for combat operations across the country next year. International troops will continue to train, advise and assist the Afghans and fight alongside them when needed. But we will shift into a support role as Afghans step forward.

As we do, our troops will be coming home. 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 and 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.

Second, we are training Afghan security forces to get the job done. Those forces have surged and will peak at 352,000 this year. The Afghans will sustain that level for three years and then reduce the size of their military. And in Chicago, we will endorse a proposal to support a strong and sustainable long-term Afghan force.

Third, we're building an enduring partnership. The agreement we signed today sends a clear message to the Afghan people: as you stand up, you will not stand alone.

It establishes the basis for our cooperation over the next decade, including shared commitments to combat terrorism and strengthen democratic institutions. It supports Afghan efforts to advance development and dignity for their people. And it includes Afghan commitments to transparency and accountability and to protect the human rights of all Afghans, men and women, boys and girls.

Within this framework, we'll work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014: counterterrorism 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.

Fourth, we're pursuing a negotiated peace. In coordination with the Afghan government, my administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban. We have made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with Al Qaida, renounce violence, and abide by Afghan laws.

Many members of the Taliban, from foot soldiers to leaders, have indicated an interest in reconciliation. The path to peace is now set before them. Those who refuse to walk it will face strong Afghan security forces, backed by the United States and our allies.

Fifth, we are building a global consensus to support peace and stability in South Asia. In Chicago, the international community will express support for this plan, and for Afghanistan's future.

And I have made it clear to its neighbor Pakistan that it can and should be an equal partner in this process in a way that respects Pakistan's sovereignty, interests, and democratic institutions. In pursuit of a durable peace, America has no designs beyond an end to Al Qaida safe havens and respect for Afghan sovereignty.

As we move forward, some people will ask why we need a firm timeline. The answer is clear: 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. Afghans want to assert their sovereignty and build a lasting peace. That requires a clear timeline to wind down the war.

Others will ask why don't we leave immediately. That answer is also clear: We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize. Otherwise, our gains could be lost and Al Qaida could establish itself once more. And as commander in chief, I refuse to let that happen. I recognize that many Americans are tired of war. As president, nothing is more wrenching than signing a letter to a family of the fallen or looking in the eyes of a child who will grow up without a mother or father. 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.

My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn 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 soon be coming home. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to Al Qaida.

This future is only within reach because of our men and women in uniform. Time and again, they have answered the call to serve in distant and dangerous places. In an age when so many institutions have come up short, these Americans stood tall. They met their responsibilities to one another and to the flag they serve under.

I just met with some of them and told them that, as commander in chief, I could not be prouder. And in their faces, we see what is best in ourselves and our country.

Our soldiers, our sailors, our airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and civilians in Afghanistan have done their duty. Now we must summon that same sense of common purpose. We must give our veterans and military families the support they deserve and the opportunities they have earned. And we must redouble our efforts to build a nation worthy of their sacrifice.

As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it's time to renew America, an America where our children live free from fear and have the skills to claim their dreams, a united America of grit and resilience, where sunlight glistens off soaring new towers in downtown Manhattan and we build our future as one people, as one nation.

Here, in Afghanistan, Americans answered the call to defend their fellow citizens and uphold human dignity. Today we recall the fallen and those who suffer wounds both seen and unseen. But through dark days we have drawn strength from their example, and the ideals that have guided our nation and lit the world: a belief that all people are created equal and deserve the freedom to determine their destiny.

That is the light that guides us still. This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end. With faith in each other and our eyes fixed on the future, let us finish the work at hand and forge a just and lasting peace.

May God bless our troops. And may God bless the United States of America.

BLITZER: President Obama speaking to the nation and to the entire world from the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, outlining an exit strategy for the United States military in Afghanistan -- an exit strategy that will take place over the next 2 1/2 years between now and the end of 2014. He then says there will be a new U.S. military and strategic relationship with Afghanistan but details have to be worked out.

John King is here. Gloria Borger is here.

John, what do you think?

KING: A sober assessment from the president, sort of a hopeful tone about bringing our troops home, made note of not only the Osama bin Laden anniversary of a year ago, but the Iraq war is over. Remember, the president has said he is committed to ending most of these wars and bringing most of the troops home.

What struck me most, Wolf, having been at the White House on that very crisp September morning, 9/11, when all of this began, 2024 is the next agreement. The U.S. commitment, some military presence, more financial commitment -- that will be six presidential terms from 9/11 when George W. Bush was president until the end of 2024, well beyond the presidency even if he wins reelection and the term after that and the term after that. Pretty striking, the legacy of that attack on 9/11 will be the United States in Afghanistan at least through 2024.

BLITZER: And there's going to be a significant military presence between now and the end of 2014. Gloria, even though there are 90,000 now, it will go down to about 65,000 troops this year, but they're going to be there for another two, 2 1/2 years or so.

BORGER: They are. And what really struck me about this was the president actually mentioned his critics saying, you know, some people will ask why we need a firm timeline here which is of course the criticism of Mitt Romney, the criticism of John McCain, has offered. And he said, very simply, the goal is we don't want to rebuild Afghanistan to be like us. We want to destroy al Qaeda and we believe, of course, that we can make this transition to the Afghan security forces and allow them to take responsibility for this.

But also it's very clear, Wolf, they have not made a firm commitment on anything. They are allowed to do something if they want to but they are not required to do something. So, this is from their point of view a pretty open-ended agreement that allows them to do what they feel they need to do in a couple of years. BLITZER: And now that the president has spoken, we are expecting a statement from Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential presumptive nominee.

Candy Crowley, it's going to be a statement I assume praising the president for this, but I could be wrong obviously.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, it is what he has done at least most of the day privately. Certainly, there has been no critical statement about this particular trip. So, I imagine it will be in keeping with that, perhaps a nod to the troops and what they have done. And I would imagine even agreeing with the president about needing to come home.

I have to tell you, I thought the subtlest part of the speech but probably the one that I think picks up on what we have been talking about, which is the number of people, including a majority of Republicans in the last poll I saw that want this war to end. The president said, "As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad ands economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America."

And that's generally the feeling you get when you talk to people who have sort of turned against this war. However righteous they felt the beginning of it was, and saying, look, we've got so many problems we need to come back here. I think the president captured that unrest and tried to say, a little more time here, a little more time, we are getting it done.

BLITZER: Yes, a little more time, 2 1/2 more years.


BLITZER: Tens of thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in harms way and tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer money will be spent. He did say on in Laden on this, the first anniversary of the killing of bin Laden, he said, "The goal that I set to defeat al Qaeda and deny the chance to rebuild is within reach."

Much more coming up. The president still on the ground in Afghanistan right now. We are watching what is going on.

Our special coverage will continue.


OBAMA: Last year, we removed 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Another 23,000 will leave by the end of the summer. After that, reduction will continue at a steady pace with more and more of our troops coming home. And as our coalition agree, by the end of 2014, the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country.


COOPER: Welcome back. President Obama visiting with some of the troops in Afghanistan earlier today. We just saw him just addressing the nation just a short time ago, talking about what the United States commitment would be to Afghanistan in the next two years and in the 10 years after the end of 2014, when U.S. troops are supposed to have left Afghanistan.

He said that the U.S. military will still have a role in Afghanistan, but it will be a counterterrorism role, as well as the role of training Afghan national security forces.

Our David Gergen is joining us now.

David, (a), what did you make of the president's speech? And, (b), a lot of what he said really is dependent on the Afghan national forces, on the police, on the Afghan national army being able to shoulder the responsibility and for years now they have not done a great job of doing that.


Overall, that was a first class big league speech, just what Americans look for in a president. You can quibble I think about what he left out, namely as you know so well, that Afghanistan remains a very corrupt country with a corrupt government with Karzai. It's a very poor country, third poorest in the world, 70 percent illiteracy rate. There's an awful lot of work to do to bring that country stability.

But overall I think President Obama tonight showed that he had a firm hand on the tiller. He has a -- he spoke in calm, reasonable ways. Sure, he had a plan. But the United States was executing on that plan.

And he gave -- he gave some sense Anderson that when it comes to foreign policy, he has -- he has a grip. I think that's what people are looking for. They want to know that the commander in chief is in charge. I think he accomplished that tonight.

COOPER: This has been a long negotiation to get this partnership -- this strategic partnership agreement. There has been a lot of concern about Hamid Karzai, a lot of concern about other Afghan leaders and as you said, about corruption in that country. But clearly the United States very strongly tonight said they are committed to Afghanistan for 12 more years.

GERGEN: We've embraced them one way or another, whether it's Karzai or not. And, Anderson, you've been there so many times. And you know how complicated the reality is there.

We've made a lot of military progress. Our troops deserve a great deal of credit. The surge has worked I think better than the skeptics believe.

But even so on the political side, trying to govern that country, as you know, is a mess. And we're going to have ourselves wrapped into that hopefully without too many casualties. I think the president made a statement (ph) very important tonight, we're not going to have bases there. I think some of us thought --

COOPER: Permanent bases.

GERGEN: Permanent bases. We wouldn't do that. We'll have a presence, but we're not going to be out in the front lines.

So, I think overall, what he was moving to a support role, what he's trying to say is, look, we've done what we came to do. We're now pulling back. We don't want it to fall apart.

COOPER: He also pointed out, U.S. troops will not be on patrol. They're doing counterterrorism, doing training but not out on patrol. I've been out on those patrols, incredibly dangerous patrols. We've lost a lot of troops and get -- a lot of men and women have been wounded out on those patrols that often --

GERGEN: That's absolutely right. Anderson, as you know, there are reports that are out there now that the military would like to send in more SEALs and more Army Delta Forces. They'd like to put more Special Forces on the ground is there, on small groups. We'll have to see if that's the way it works out.

But I think overall tonight, the president accomplished the mission he sent out to do when he made this stealthy trip -- it's incredible, dramatic trip -- that he gave assurance.

And frankly, you know, I think this is going to have a political fallout in more ways than one. I think it's going to lap over into the domestic side. Americans who were looking for that kind of firm leadership on the domestic side, they don't see it. And maybe they'll think better overall now. We'll have to wait and see.

COOPER: Yes, there's more to talk about. We've got to take a quick break. We think the president is leaving Afghanistan -- we assume relatively shortly now that the speech is done. We'll bring you all the details as we can.

We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.



OBAMA: Within this framework, we'll work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish to narrow security missions beyond 2014, counterterrorism and continued training. But we will not build permanent bases in this country. Nor will we be patrolling in cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people.


BLITZER: The president outlining an exit strategy for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. John, he also laid out hope that members of the Taliban will cooperate.

KING: And that's part of the risk of this strategy. The administration has come to the solution it has no choice but to bring the Taliban into negotiations. The Afghan government wants to bring the Taliban into negotiations.

That's a risk there. You're talking about people who invited al Qaeda in to build those training camps, who have persecuted women, who have wreaked terror on the people of Afghanistan for years and years.

The president's solution is, you have a civil war essentially. You've got to bring them in. That is part of the risk of the strategy going forward.

It's interesting, Wolf. We talked during the break. We're at highly charged political times right now, and what a quiet night it is.

The Republicans are sort of holding their powder. He's the commander-in-chief. They want to let him give this speech. They'll have questions about the timeline. They'll have questions about where the devils in the details in this new agreement.

And from liberals and the fellow Democrats tonight, almost silent because the president is telling them, combat troops for two and a half more years, and then some troops for another dozen years in Afghanistan.

So, it's very interesting that in such a loud political environment, it's kind of quiet tonight.

BLITZER: Well, a thunderous silence from a lot of these Democrats. You get McCain and Lindsey Graham and some other Republicans praising the president. I'm not seeing a lot of that yet from a lot of these liberal Democrats. They don't like the fact that he's making this dozen-year commitment to maintaining a military presence, if you will, in Afghanistan, even if there won't be permanent bases.

We're waiting for the president to get ready to leave Afghanistan now that daylight is about to come up. It's after 4:00 a.m. over there. The president at some point will fly back to Washington.

Our special coverage continues with "A.C. 360."