Monday 18 December 2017

Explosions in Kabul as Barack Obama leaves following surprise visit

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers an address on U.S. policy and the war in Afghanistan during his visit to Bagram Air Base in Kabul, May 2, 2012.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers an address on U.S. policy and the war in Afghanistan during his visit to Bagram Air Base in Kabul, May 2, 2012.
Afghan policemen carry a body out of the scene of militants attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, May 2, 2012.

Ben Farmer in Kabul, Jon Swaine, and Raf Sanchez in Washington

A TALIBAN suicide attack on a fortified compound for foreign workers killed at least six people just hours after Barack Obama had visited the Afghan capital and talked of a new dawn for Afghanistan.

Kabul woke to explosions and gunfire after Mr Obama had completed his visit to sign a 10 year strategic pact with Hamid Karzai guaranteeing support to Afghanistan after most Nato troops leave.

At least one suicide car bomber struck Green Village, a high-security compound on Jalalabad road to the east of the city, soon after 6am.

The first blast was followed by gunfire and more explosions as police said they were battling at least two attackers at the compound.

Gen Ayub Salangi, Kabul’s police chief said four civilians in a passing car, a school student and a compound guard were killed and up to 17 more people were wounded.

A spokesman for the Taliban insurgency claimed responsibility for the attack. The first claim made no mention of Mr Obama’s visit, but a later claim said it was in protest at the agreement and to show the American president was “not welcome”.

Mr Obama had declared only hours earlier that “the light of a new day on the horizon” was in America’s sights after a decade of war, as he capitalised on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death with his surprise visit to Afghanistan.

Amid sharp domestic criticism over his exploitation of the al-Qaeda chief’s assassination for political gain, Mr Obama gave a defiant speech at Bagram Air Base in which he declared it was “time to renew America”.

He pledged to rebuild a country of “grit and resilience” where “children live free from fear”, and – invoking September 11 and the newly rebuilt World Trade Center - “where sunlight glistens off soaring new towers in downtown Manhattan”.

Mr Obama narrowed America's remaining objectives to to defeating al-Qaeda and training the Afghan security forces, saying: "Our goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban".

Invoking the original aims of the 2001 war, Mr Obama said that US troops must remain for two more years to give Afghanistan "the opportunity to stablise" or else risk that the country could once again become a haven for terrorists. "We must finish the job we started in Afghanistan, and end this war responsibly," he said.

He also said the US had been in "direct discussions" with the Taliban in an effort to peel off more moderate for who were prepared to lay down their arms in return for peace.

"A 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," he said.

Mr Obama, who signed a strategic agreement with Afghan president Hamid Karzai outlining US support for Afghanistan after its combat troops withdraw at the end of 2014, was spared criticism of the timing of his trip by a convetion that discourages American politicians from criticising the President while he is abroad.

However Republicans are furious with him for gloating over his decision to order US Navy SEALs to raid bin Laden’s Pakistani compound a year ago in re-election campaign material, and for questioning whether Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, would have done the same.

Mr Romney, who has come under fire for saying in 2007 that it was “not worth moving heaven and earth” to get bin Laden, said that "even Jimmy Carter" – the former Democratic president whose name is now a byword for weak US leadership – would have ordered the operation.

Senator John McCain, Mr Obama’s opponent in 2008, angrily stated that “the thing about heroes” is that “they don't brag” while Rudolph Giuliani, the Mayor of New York City at the time of the September 11 attacks, yesterday described the President’s actions as “a big mistake”.

Mr Obama’s ten-minute speech went some way to pre-empting his first official campaign rallies in Ohio and Virginia on Saturday. He took credit for ending the war in Iraq and drawing down the conflict in Afghanistan, as well as “delivering justice” to al-Qaeda by killing its leader.

“We have travelled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war,” he said. “Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”

Mr Obama’s visit came after a string of incidents that have further strained the relationship between the US and its Afghan allies. A US staff sergeant allegedly massacred 17 Afghan civilians in Kandahar in March and the Taliban have stepped up the ferocity and tempo of its coordinated attacks on Kabul.

The ten-year Strategic Partnership Agreement transferred control of detention facilities to Afghan forces and handed them the lead on the controversial night raids carried out by American soldiers. It also committed the US to providing funding and training for Afghan forces after 2014.

The trip also came as Americans' faith in the military effort plumbed all-time lows, with only 38 per cent saying they believe that the US's campaign was going well. More than 1,900 US troops have been killed and nearly $1.3 trillion (£800 billion) spent in Afghanistan since the war started following 9/11.

After signing the deal the President said it would pave the way for "a future of peace”, adding: "Neither Americans nor the Afghan people asked for this war, yet for a decade we've stood together”.

Mr Obama’s visit was timed for arrival in the relative safety of darkness, with his speech to US troops scheduled to begin at 4am local time - further highlighting the fraught security situation around the US military presence.

The trip was also shrouded in secrecy. The White House led an aggressive campaign throughout Tuesday to silence journalists who learned of it through unofficial sources and promptly reported it on Twitter.

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