BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan – US President Barack Obama promised a decision on post-2014 troop numbers in Afghanistan "fairly shortly", after paying a surprise visit to soldiers fighting the last battles of America's longest war.
Obama made a covert night-time trip from the White House to Bagram Air Base aboard a darkened Air Force One on a visit on Sunday meant to hail the sacrifices of US soldiers in Afghanistan ahead of the US Memorial Day weekend.
Obama renewed his commitment to a limited presence in Afghanistan for US and NATO troops after the withdrawal of combat forces at the end of the year.
He said he hoped that the new Afghan president would agree to a bilateral security agreement mandating the mission, which Karzai has refused to sign.
Reaching the end of a war that Obama escalated after taking office, he argued the steep sacrifices of US troops – more than 2,300 have died – are being rewarded.
"After more than a decade of war we are at a pivotal moment," Obama told a hangar full of cheering US servicemen and women.
"By the end of this year, the transition will be complete and Afghanistan will take full responsibility for their security.
"Our combat mission will be over. America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end."
The president said that extremist groups like al-Qaeda would no longer be able to use Afghanistan as a haven to plan terror strikes such as the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Obama is heading towards a decision on how many US and NATO troops to leave behind to train Afghan troops and support anti-terrorism missions.
He told the top US General in Afghanistan, Joseph Dunford, and the US ambassador to Kabul James Cunningham that he would make an announcement "fairly shortly".
The administration has decided it cannot wait until the final results of Afghanistan's run-off to declare its intentions and that NATO allies need to know what the US is planning.
Defence officials are "encouraged" that Obama appears to be leaning toward the recommendation made by military commanders for 10,000 troops to remain. But it was unclear if Obama would opt for that number or something lower, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
US plans to retain a small garrison in Afghanistan after 51,000 international combat troops withdraw at the end of the year are in limbo over Karzai's refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement. — AFP