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What did Obama's Afghanistan speech really mean?

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
May 2, 2012 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama vowed drawdown of troops but that might be up for debate
  • Elections in Pakistan, Afghanistan and U.S. could change everything
  • Expert: Read between lines in Obama's statements about Pakistan

(CNN) -- By midmorning Wednesday, Air Force One touched down at Andrews Air Force Base. President Barack Obama had returned from a surprise trip to Afghanistan that lasted a day but was meant to mark a transition to the end of the more than decadelong war.

There has been much debate about what the speech signifies and what it means for the long-term future of Afghanistan and America's involvement there. The agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that Obama touted, the strategic partnership agreement, is short on specifics and Obama's speech did not lay out any new timetable for the war.

While some observers say it's foolish to think the United States will actually leave the country, others say Obama's speech, both its symbolic occurrence and its contents, are signs of tremendous progress. At a minimum, a milestone has been reached despite tense relations. But what it means in practical terms for Americans is unclear, because after most troops leave in 2014, what remains has yet to be negotiated.

When Obama spoke of "a future in which war ends and a new chapter begins," what did that mean specifically?

Coming home

There are approximately 88,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Last year, the United States reduced the troop count in Afghanistan by 10,000, and an additional 23,000 troops will return home by the end of the summer. Obama said the rest will be removed after this summer at a "steady pace" through 2014.

But there is likely a battle on the horizon over how many soldiers should remain. In late March, Gen. John Allen, the top commander for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, publicly called for keeping more troops in the nation into 2013. Allen said he would prefer to maintain post-surge troop levels. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain has also been critical of the idea of reducing troop levels. McCain has said he's worried the recent scandals involving U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- the Quran burnings, the Kandahar massacre, photographs of soldiers holding body parts -- have left Afghanistan far too shaky a place to pull back from now.

Can the Afghans take charge?

In Obama's speech, he said the United States is training Afghan security forces, and that their numbers will top out at 352,000 this year. That force level will be sustained for three years, he said, and then be reduced. Does that make good security sense in the long run? Afghan forces need a lot more training, said Marine Maj. Gen. John A. Toolan, who spoke to CNN in late April after returning from commanding NATO forces in southern Afghanistan for a year.

"As the conventional forces leave, special operations forces will continue to be required because their (Afghan military) special operations capabilities are going to take a little bit more time to nurture and mature," he said.

Obama said Tuesday: "We'll work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014, counterterrorism and continued training."

Toolan said the Afghan military's human intelligence capability is good. But, he added, they still need intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets only the U.S. military has. "The Afghans know we have that and they want to have access, so I think we are going to have to provide that for a while past 2014," he said.

Negotiating with the enemy?

It may have come as a surprise to some Americans listening to the president's speech when he said, "We're pursuing a negotiated peace" with the Taliban.

What happened to smoking them out of their holes? Isn't the Taliban the enemy? Is this how to defeat them, by talking to them?

Al Qaeda and the Taliban are two different entities, though they are related.

The Taliban, a Sunni Islamist group, ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 until they were ousted by the 2001 American-led invasion. But starting around 2004, the movement regained force and mounted an insurgency against the Afghan government and Western forces.

Al Qaeda is a terrorist group created by Osama bin Laden. The Taliban has provided shelter and support to al Qaeda.

It's the norm for the Taliban to speak through official spokespersons. They even use Twitter.

But the Obama administration has said it believes Taliban members, from soldiers to even some leaders, are interested in pursuing reconciliation. The move has been supported by numerous leaders, including military officials, and a U.S. official said the talks are ongoing.

CNN reported months ago that a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan had been meeting secretly with Taliban negotiators for more than a year. There was talk of releasing five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay to be transferred to Qatar as a show of good faith in negotiations. The Taliban had established an office in Qatar for the talks, but suspended that office in March. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in January that the United States has "realistic" notions of "what is possible" and that Afghan President Hamid Karzai should "bear the ultimate responsibility and consequences of" the talks.

"It's obviously viscerally not what the average American may want to hear from their president about a war we've been fighting for more than 10 years," American University professor and terrorism expert Stephen Tankel said Wednesday.

"But the fact is that that is how these types of conflicts end -- through some kind of settlement, some agreement and talking. But no one can know whether this will work."

If it doesn't, could it mean more violence involving American troops? Tankel said yes. Obama strongly suggested that as well, but in more vague language. "Those who refuse to walk it will face strong Afghan security forces, backed by the United States and our allies," Obama said.

The fight beyond Afghanistan

Obama spoke of "delivering justice" to al Qaeda. But is that the same thing as defeating it? Over the years, al Qaeda has branched out or grown stronger in various countries: Somalia, Yemen and Iraq, to name a few.

"I think (Obama) is only saying that the foothold al Qaeda had in Afghanistan is not present or is substantially weakened," said Tankel.

It has been weakened in large part because U.S. drone strikes on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border targeting terrorists have been successful, he said. Yet the drone strikes are controversial and some are calling for their end. Critics say drone strikes are not as precise as military leaders say, and that they endanger civilians.

CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen, who got exclusive access to a trove of documents about bin Laden, believes the terror group is in terrible shape.

"Their record of failure speaks for itself: No success in the West since the London attacks of 2005, no attacks in the United States since 9/11 (2001), almost the entire top leadership dead or captured," said Bergen.

But al Qaeda has been franchising around the world.

In a relationship with Pakistan, it's complicated

"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," Obama said Tuesday.

He stressed that in the U.S. pursuit of a "durable peace," the United States "has no designs beyond an end to al Qaeda safe havens and respect for Afghan sovereignty."

For the past year, some of the United States' top military and political leaders have said Pakistan is not to be trusted. It's one of the reasons the country was not informed about the 2011 U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. This week CNN reported that a new semi-annual report released by the Pentagon said the "Taliban-led insurgency and its al Qaeda affiliates still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan."

Pakistan and the United States have tense relations. Lately, Pakistan has demanded the United States stop its drone attacks against al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan. The program has been dubbed a success by the United States. What's more, Pakistan is refusing to open roads that are supply lines through Pakistan to troops in Afghanistan. That action is in response to other grievances. Pakistan also wants $3 billion for helping the American effort to fight terrorists in tribal areas.

Christine Fair, with the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, specializes in Pakistan.

"The things that were said (in the speech) ... about Pakistan seem discordant with what's happening in Pakistan and about the (U.S.) relationship with Pakistan," she said.

The phrasing Obama used was likely a way to entice the Pakistanis to come to a Chicago NATO summit in May. They are threatening right now to protest by not attending, she said.

"The Pakistanis listen to our media, and they are going to listen to what Obama said and see that it doesn't reflect how they are being treated," she said. "We (the United States) don't treat them as equals. We are increasingly treating them as combatants. Their proxies are killing our troops and we want to kill those people."

She said there is a lot of political turbulence ahead in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States. New leaders in the mix could change everything.

Pakistan will have a national election in October.

Afghanistan elections are slated for 2014.

The Unites States' presidential election is in November.

Was Tuesday's speech about winning points in an election year?

It was the president speaking about six months away from voting day. He was speaking about one of the most controversial wars in history from the nation in which the war has been waged. It was the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, which he authorized.

The short answer is: Yes.

But that doesn't mean it was about political pandering either, experts said.

The White House said the speech was not meant as a showboating opportunity.

"The negotiations were completed in recent weeks, and the documents of the strategic partnership agreement went to the presidents for their review," a senior administration official said just before Obama's speech. Karzai invited Obama to sign the agreement on Afghan soil, the official said.

Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, an influential Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wasn't buying that. He said it seemed clear to him that Obama's trip was meant to garner more votes in November.

"We've seen recently that President Obama has visited college campuses in an attempt to win back the support of that age group since he has lost it over the last three years," Inhofe said in a written statement Wednesday. "Similarly, this trip to Afghanistan is an attempt to shore up his national security credentials, because he has spent the past three years gutting our military."

Longtime GOP Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, tweeted the same sentiment.

"The White House tells us it is a coincidence that POTUS is in Afghanistan on anniversary of OBL death" his post read. He followed that with a tweet referencing Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, one of the first professional football players known for perfecting the art of the end-zone dance.

McCain said he didn't think the trip was about winning political brownie points. "I can't accuse the president of that," McCain said.

"A lot of people both here in Congress, including Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. (Joseph) Lieberman, worked on the strategic partnership agreement, and it's important that we send the message to friends and enemies alike that the United States has a long-term commitment to Afghanistan."

Mitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, held his fire.

"I am pleased that President Obama has returned to Afghanistan," Romney said in a written statement released by his campaign on Tuesday. "Our troops and the American people deserve to hear from our president about what is at stake in this war."

CNN's Jamie Crawford contributed to this report.

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