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President Obama Visits Afghanistan; Alleged Terror Plot Foiled; Obama, Karzai to Sign Cooperation Agreement
Aired May 1, 2012 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour. I'm Brooke Baldwin.
A lot happening this hour.
First, breaking today, a terror blot here at home. The feds say this group here of so-called anarchists are in custody, accused of wanting to blow up a bridge in Ohio. We are told the plan included C4 explosives and IEDs, improvised explosive devices, the target here, a four-lane bridge in Cleveland.
But get this. The FBI says it controlled the plot the entire time undercover and the public was never, ever in danger. So coming up, more on that alleged plot and how these men planned to distract police, but first breaking news.
I'm hearing now President Obama has made a surprise visit to Afghanistan, Bagram Air Base, in the cover of darkness. So we're now hearing -- are we learning that he's now left Bagram, Eric (ph)? Over the last four months -- forgive me, I'm just getting this information as I'm spitting it right back out to you -- the president has arrived in Afghanistan.
So, again, this is significant because think about what's happened over the last couple of months in Afghanistan. You have a sergeant who walked into one of the villages and shot and killed 17 civilians. That was just a couple months ago go.
You also have a couple months ago Korans being accidentally torched. And that of course led to severe anti-violence -- anti- American violence erupting in Afghanistan. And just recently, we saw pictures of desecrated corpses. As we later learned, they were identified as former Taliban fighters.
So the president walking into this. I don't know if he's specifically meeting with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan. One would presume he would be. And if I can pull up my e-mail, the last time he was in Afghanistan was a number of months ago, number of months ago, previous trips.
Here we go. The last time he was at Bagram was December 3, 2010. So it's been clearly two, two years ago, one-and-a-half years. The president, we're just learning here, as we're a couple minutes away from this White House briefing -- we will perhaps get a little bit more detail about the timing of the trip. Keep in mind, it was this evening one year ago when we saw the president deliver the news that he and thanks to SEAL Team Six had taken out the most-wanted criminal in the world, Osama bin Laden. So this happening on the one-year death anniversary of Osama bin Laden.
We have John King standing by in Washington with a little bit more on the news here.
John King, clear -- clear this up for me. We know that he has just arrived, just arrived in Afghanistan at Bagram. What more do we know and the purpose of the trip here?
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Brooke, the White House is obviously being very careful about the ticktock of the president's movements because of security concerns, but we can now report that we know the president has landed safely in Afghanistan, that he flew there overnight from the United States.
Obviously, he is there on the one-year anniversary of the raid across the border in Pakistan that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. We also know the president will address the nation tonight in the 7:00 hour, 7:30 p.m. tonight. He will address the nation from Afghanistan.
And we know while there, Brooke, he is scheduled to meet with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. And the two leaders are expected -- all the details have been worked out -- to sign a memorandum of understanding, a strategic agreement between the two countries to keep -- remember, most U.S. troops are supposed to come out of Afghanistan next year.
This would keep some U.S. military presence and create a strategic alliance between the two countries, essentially saying in the years going forward, when U.S. combat troops are out of Afghanistan, there would still be training, there would still be cooperation between the two countries, including on security issues and the like.
That has been important to the United States to have a footprint in Afghanistan going forward. And, obviously, as you know, as the president tonight and as the country marks one year since the death of Osama bin Laden, there are still big questions about the security situation in Afghanistan.
You were talking a few moments ago about occasional problems still with the Taliban. Will there be a Taliban resurgence? And this is separate from the bin Laden anniversary, but there have been questions for a decade now about corruption in the Afghan government and getting not only the Afghan forces up to the point where they can secure their country without the help from the United States, but also to get the Afghanistan government up to a point where it has the confidence of its people, infrastructure, economic, education, confidence of its people, so that it makes it harder, just from a psychological standpoint, Brooke, a political and cultural standpoint, for the Taliban to come back.
BALDWIN: John King, do me a favor and stand by.
I'm going to bring in this Fareed Zakaria, host of "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS."
And, Fareed, to pick up where John King left off, we had heard reports of this -- we know that President Obama and President Hamid Karzai will be signing this memorandum of understanding. So we have heard reports about this significant pact, right, that we now are hearing will be signed, which I think lot of Americans perhaps don't realize, even though the majority of our troops and other troops around the world will be drawing down in 2014.
It really extends for another decade, correct, that the United States will still have a presence there militarily, but also financially as well.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN WORLD AFFAIRS ANALYST: Exactly, Brooke.
This agreement is meant to deal with two issues. One is a long- term issue and one is a short-term issue. The long-term issue is that President Obama has decided to draw down troops in Afghanistan. That led a lot of people to say, look, if you're going to draw down troops, you're signaling to the Taliban that you're getting out of there, that Afghanistan is open game for them.
You're signaling to the Pakistani militants and perhaps even to the Pakistani military that the United States is gone. Everyone needs to start making calculations based on the idea that there will be no American presence in Afghanistan.
Well, this agreement is meant to say, no, hold on. There won't be 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, but we will be a partner, we will be strategically involved. We will even have some kind of military association with Afghanistan long past 2014, which is the date at which the last U.S. troops are supposed to leave under current plans.
The second part of this, of course, is to demonstrate that the last two months, as you mentioned, Brooke, have seen a series of unfortunate episodes of various kinds...
ZAKARIA: ... the sergeant, the burning of the Korans. And this agreement is meant to say, look, we understand that these things happen, but there is a U.S./Afghan partnership, a strategic relationship and that continues.
BALDWIN: Given what we have been reporting on the last couple of months, though, Fareed, to be a fly on the wall of the conversation between President Obama and President Karzai, but what conversation is he really walking into? What ultimately is the goal walking out of that?
ZAKARIA: I think that both Karzai and President Obama are serious about the long-term national interests of their country. Karzai, whom I have spoken to many, many times, has his complaints with the United States on tactical issues. But on the strategic question of should the -- should Afghanistan be tied, allied with the United States, he's very clear and has been clear from day one. So I suspect he, too, needs to right things because his public opinion has been veering in a somewhat dangerous direction.
For President Obama, I think what he's trying to signal is to all the regional players there, don't think that we're leaving. We're still going to be a presence. You have to take us into account. We're not going anywhere. Even though we may not have 90,000 troops, we will still be a strong presence there.
So I think the two of them will find a way to have a meeting of minds. I think both will try to put behind them these unfortunate episodes, which frankly are not representative of the broader relationship between the United States and Afghanistan.
BALDWIN: Fareed Zakaria, thank you so much. Stand by for me.
And I want to bring Wolf Blitzer in.
And in case you're just joining us, we're now learning here breaking news, that President Obama is in Afghanistan. To be clear, he's making the surprise visit in Afghanistan, landing at the Bagram Air Base under the cover of darkness.
As we now know, Wolf, he's meeting with President Karzai.
What more do we know about this trip?
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's a dramatic moment, and still hard to believe that 10 years after the war in Afghanistan started after 9/11, the president of the United States still can't arrive in Afghanistan under normal circumstances, has to go through all of these extraordinary security precautions in order to protect his security, the security of other U.S. men and women who are traveling with him.
It says a lot about what's going on in Afghanistan right now. This is a very, very sensitive, delicate mission that is under way right now.
Let me bring in our White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar. She's standing by over at the White House.
And, Brianna, throughout the day, there have been these rumors out there that the president was missing, that he was doing something extraordinary, and obviously for security reason, no one wants to talk about where he is.
But set the scene for us. What did they say at the White House today where the president was, what he was doing, what was on his schedule, because we now know what he actually was doing?
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, when you looked as his public schedule, he had a lot of meetings. And I think the expectation, even as it became apparent, although certainly wasn't being reported for security reasons, that the president may be overseas, I think that a lot of people thought because the president was kicking off his reelection in a major way on Saturday, that there would be some time set aside for some work on that this week. So it didn't seem that unreasonable.
We were told there would be a briefing at 3:00 p.m. That was honestly kind of weird, too, because we don't normally get one that late. So the pieces kind of came together.
But it was really several hours after the president left the White House. We understand he left late last night. It's a 13-hour flight. And, as you know, it's pretty hard to hide the president of the United States. Reports started coming out, local reports from Afghanistan. And other news outlets started picking them up.
And that is certainly what started to be reported. But, of course, because of security reasons, it wasn't reported until the president was on the ground. And even then, the pool report came out about an hour and some minutes after the president had landed in Kabul -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And there's no doubt this is very, very sensitive material.
Chris Lawrence is our Pentagon correspondent.
Chris, the defense secretary, Leon Panetta, do we know where he is? Is he with the president in Afghanistan for this major security agreement signing ceremony?
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're told that the secretary is not with the president, that he was not traveling to Afghanistan on this trip.
But the Pentagon recently, just this week, released a major report on what's happening there. And it's mix of good and bad news for President Obama as he signs this historic agreement. On the plus side, you can look at a decrease in violence.
For about five years there, violence was going up every single year. Then, in 2011, violence went down about 9 percent. And so far this year, it's down another 16 percent compared to this time last year. That's not to say there are not challenges there.
The report also found that there are acute challenges with the agreement with Pakistan and with the relationship in Pakistan because that is where the sanctuaries of the leaders...
BLITZER: Chris, let me interrupt you for a second. This is new video we're just getting in on the president's arrival in Afghanistan not that long ago you see in the cover of darkness. He's there. He's received by U.S. military personnel. I assume General John Allen, the head of the NATO operation -- of course, the biggest part of that NATO operation, U.S. troops. You see he landed there in the middle of the night. There's a major time difference between the East Coast of the United States and Afghanistan. It looks like he's getting ready to board a helicopter to continue on this part of the mission.
John King is with me here in Washington.
John, we have covered presidents who have made these surprise visits whether to Afghanistan, to Iraq. And we see this president doing so right now.
Describe a little bit about the sensitivity, how secure, how dangerous potentially this is for an American president aboard Air Force One, some sort of huge plane landing in a dangerous country like Afghanistan or Iraq for that matter still so many years after 9/11.
KING: I took a trip several years ago with President George W. Bush when he made the first trip to Iraq after Prime Minister Maliki assumed power.
You see there that is a powerful symbol on the world stage. When we landed in Iraq, President Bush insisted on bringing Air Force One, the 747. President Obama has insisted on doing that here. You see that. The advice of you advisers normally is to switch to a military plane, which is a bit more mobile, a bit less obvious, if you will.
But that's a powerful symbol, the flag of the United States government and the flagship of the military fleet on the ground there in Afghanistan. Wolf, when we took this trip, we were told, number one, we were given secret briefings. We were told we were not supposed to tell our family. We were supposed to tell one or two of our colleagues, meaning our bosses, and to keep it as secret as possible.
Then, when you got on the plane, they take away all your electronic devices. They urge you to turn things off. On Air Force One, as you well remember, in the press charter, there's a television and it has the time, Washington time, time at destination, how long is the flight.
All that was turned off on the trip when we came close to landing just so there would essentially be no silhouette, no light coming from, no electronic signals coming from the plane. And when we took off in Iraq, it was like -- imagine sitting in your car with your foot on the brake revving the engine. You could hear Air Force One. They were revving the engine, so powerful, it was trembling a little bit. And then we took off almost straight up like a rocket.
BLITZER: And when you landed, you sort of landed in that spin because you don't want to spend too much time over ground. KING: Right, they want to come down as quickly as possible. And they want to get over this -- over the secure area of the air base before they start to bring that plane down.
Saw some tracer fire. I remember when we were transferring at one point, you could you hear some mortar fire. The question they could never answer, was that directed at president or was it just normal mortar fire that happened at that time back in those days in the Green Zone in Iraq?
Obviously, Afghanistan is more secure now than it was five or 10 years ago. Iraq on that trip was at a pretty dicey time. But they always take huge precautions. And obviously this is a hard, difficult security environment anyway. You see the helicopters flying there, and all the more so because it is the anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
There have been some concerns, as you know, here in the United States, no specific or credible threat, but concerns that here in the United States and around the world, either al Qaeda elements or sympathizers might try to do some damage.
BLITZER: And just to be precise, as we're looking at these pictures that are just coming in from Afghanistan, you see Air Force One, that huge 747.
That plane landed at Bagram Airfield at around 1:50 p.m. Eastern time. The president was immediately transferred to waiting helicopters. The U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, received the president at Bagram.
The president then landed in Kabul, the capital, at 2:39 p.m. Eastern time. And he motorcaded to the presidential palace, where Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan and the president of the United States, are expected to sign this strategic cooperation agreement, all of this unfolding very, very rapidly, all of it unfolding in the middle of the night in Afghanistan.
Fareed Zakaria is watching all of this unfold together with us.
Fareed, it's amazing that they have to do all of this in the middle of the night for security reasons. And it speaks volumes, at least to me, about what's going on in Afghanistan.
ZAKARIA: Wolf, you started with that point, and I think it is actually in some ways the most important point.
This is America's longest war. This agreement in fact ensures that this will be America's longest military engagement by far. And so it tells you that we have entered into a kind of no-man's zone, if you will, a kind of unending conflict that we frankly don't quite know if it is going to end, because if the goal is a stable Afghanistan with none of these warring factions going after one another, that might take a very long time.
And what I think the Obama administration is trying to do is to set some kind of framework in which there will be American assistance and help, but we don't have to be fighting a war, as it were. But think about it. Even under the good-case scenario, this will go on until 2014, which means we will have that have had over a decade.
And it's very difficult to believe that in 2014 or 2015, there will be any clean resolution. I thinks's fair to say that it is quite likely that this will be a conflict that the United States will be engaged in, in some sense or another, for 20 years.
BLITZER: Yes. Well, right now, the U.S. still has about 90,000 troops in Afghanistan. Some will be leaving. Some of the combat forces will be leaving later this year.
But there still will be a residual presence through the end of 2014. The agreement that they're signing tonight will be an agreement for post-2014, the strategic cooperation between these two countries.
Fareed, stand by for a moment. There, you see the Air Force One, Air Force One that landed about an hour-and-a-half or so ago at the Bagram Airfield. The president then helicoptered to Kabul. He is in the presidential palace right now with Hamid Karzai.
It's now after midnight in Kabul.
Nick Paton Walsh is in Kabul for us.
Nick, set the scene for us. What is going on? What do we expect? What are Afghan officials and U.S. officials in the Afghan capital telling you?
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there has been a blanket of complete secrecy, shattered I must say about six hours ago, where it became clear Afghan media reporting the possibility of a presidential visit here by Barack Obama.
That was immediately squashed by statements from U.S. officials on both sides of the Atlantic and even Afghan officials desperate to keep this rare trip under a veil of intense security, deeply concerned about his potential safety, given how volatile things have been in the capital of late.
As you have just been discussing, initially, he went to Bagram obviously to meet commanders and troops there, and then on to the Afghan presidential palace in the heart of Kabul here.
Locals really remarking on the silence that descended upon the capital city over these incredibly important hours, a lockdown in some areas near major buildings, and a real sense that something was about to happen, but nobody willing to really confirm what that was, for obvious reasons.
And I heard about an hour ago helicopters passing overhead, the first of the night. Normally, they're a fairly common presence in the skies here, but they were noticeably absent all evening. And then suddenly we heard this, perhaps to many of us who had heard these rumors confirmation that something may be afoot, but now, of course, we're hearing he is in the presidential palace, may well have already been moving onwards and has signed this crucial strategic partnership agreement.
Just to explain what that really does, it's basically a document, a sort of symbolic embrace between Washington and Kabul. It doesn't hammer out financial commitments. It doesn't talk about troop numbers, but it does talk about the kind of relationship the two countries want to have.
And that's been so deeply vital for both sides after this incredibly rocky four months towards the end of this decade-long war in which they have seen all these setbacks. Washington and Kabul, I think, really wanted to have -- particularly on the American side of the equation, they wanted to see some sort of positive statement ahead of this vital summit in Chicago, where NATO nations are supposed to lay out the kind of contributions they what to make to Afghanistan in the years ahead.
So, definitely a seminal thing here, certainly for the U.S./Afghan relationship, of course also for the president himself here on the anniversary of bin Laden's death -- Wolf.
BLITZER: There you see the president just walking down the stairs from Air Force One at the Bagram Air Base, received by the U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, also Lieutenant General Mike Scaparrotti -- Scaparrotti, who greeted the president. I'm sure General John Allen, the commander, will be seeing the president as well.
He's now at the presidential palace in Kabul. It's well after midnight in the Afghan capital. They are getting ready to sign this strategic cooperation agreement between the United States and Afghanistan.
And the president, by the way, will also be addressing the nation, the American people, indeed the world, from Afghanistan 7:30 p.m. Eastern later tonight, a major address announcing this agreement, all of this happening exactly to the day one year after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
We will take a quick break, continue the breaking news coverage right here on CNN right after this.
BLITZER: Welcome back to the breaking news.
We're covering the dramatic arrival, the surprise visit by the president of the United States to Afghanistan. There, you see him walking off of Air Force One at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. From there, he took a military helicopter flight to Kabul.
He's now in the presidential palace meeting with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan. He will be going back to Bagram meeting with troops and then will be addressing the American people at 7:30 p.m. Eastern later tonight, a live address from Afghanistan.
John King is here watching all of this unfold.
John, this is an important speech that the president is going to be giving. And it comes on, coincidentally -- or maybe not coincidentally -- on the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden's killing.
KING: How about not coincidentally?
KING: Look, don't mean to make too much politics of this. This is a very important, significant policy visit by the president to the Afghanistan. This strategic partnership agreement is an important interim agreement between the two countries. They still need to negotiate a strategic forces agreement. That would be a commitment to the actual troop levels.
They're not there yet. They're still working on that. But it's a very important policy moment for the president. But let's not lose sight of the fact that we're May 1 in an election year, a very competitive election year. It is one year to the day since the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. So the president tonight in the very country where al Qaeda camps were used to plan the 9/11 attacks, he will not only say he has a new agreement with the Afghan president.
He will be speaking on the one-year anniversary and he will be talking about winding down the American military commitment in Afghanistan. I would not be surprised at all if he makes note of the fact that that comes after he wound down the military commitment in Iraq, two very unpopular wars back here in the United States.
So it is an important policy speech for the president tonight, but we would be silly to dismiss also the important political moment for this president, at a time when many Republicans have been crying foul, saying he's overpoliticizing the death of bin Laden and his role in the death of bin Laden.
KING: Look, he was commander in chief who a year ago -- a little more than a year ago -- authorized the raid that one year ago tonight killed bin Laden. And he certainly deserves credit for that. You heard Governor Romney giving him credit again today.
So, we will have a lot -- big policy discussion today, Wolf. And guess what? This is front and center in what is a very competitive, very contentious election year that will be largely about the economy, but you have a Democratic commander in chief who can lay significant claim to some important achievements in what George W. Bush used to call the war on terror. The Obama administration doesn't like that language.
BLITZER: Yes. There's no doubt.
And Brianna Keilar is our White House correspondent. She is over at the White House. There is no doubt the president a year ago deserves an enormous amount of credit for going ahead and giving the order to go and send that Navy SEAL Team Six into Pakistan, into Abbottabad, into bin Laden's compound.
They weren't even 100 percent sure he was there. And there were some senior advisers to the president, including Vice President Joe Biden and the then secretary of defense, Bob Gates, who said maybe this wasn't such a good idea, but the president overruled them and said, let's do it. And, of course, we all know what happened.
Brianna, what about the criticism that will no doubt unfold, and what are they saying, your sources over there at the White House, that the president is doing this victory lap, if you will, spiking the football for political purposes? You know that argument is going to be made.
KEILAR: Well, over here at the White House, officials have said the president is not over-celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden.
That has been what they have said, Wolf, as we have heard criticism from a number of Republicans. Reaction, obviously -- we haven't really heard any criticism coming from Republicans yet. The news here is so fresh that President Obama is in Afghanistan.
But the fact is, no matter how much really of politics President Obama may make of the death of Osama bin Laden today and now in this high-profile visit to Afghanistan, politically, this is a trip that can serve him well. I mean, when you talk about sort of his accomplishments, the things that he has sought to do as a president, taking out Osama bin Laden is one that is harder to debate than, say, his treatment of the economy or passage of health care reform, other things that he is hit by Republicans on.
And lately, certainly, the Obama campaign has tried to minimize some of that criticism -- or -- pardon me -- really tried to hit back on the criticism from, for instance, those in the Romney camp, who are obviously trying to minimize this accomplishment by President Obama this time last year.
BLITZER: Brianna, stand by over there at the White House.
We're getting ready to hear from the president. He will be speaking to the nation 7:30 p.m. Eastern later tonight from Afghanistan. Right now, he's meeting with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan. They're getting ready to sign that strategic partnership agreement. Post-2014, the U.S. and the NATO allies will have a lot of troops, thousands of troops in Afghanistan for another two-and-a-half years until the end of 2014.
This is an agreement that works out a formula -- and a lot of the details still must be resolved -- on what happens after 2014 in the U.S./Afghan relationship. They have been working on this long-term security cooperation agreement for a long, long time.
Let's take another quick break, resume the coverage right after this.
BLITZER: Major breaking news we're following in Afghanistan right now. In a surprise visit, the President of the United States arrived almost two hours or so ago at Kabul, first landing at Bagram, at the Bagram air base then taking a military helicopter from Bagram over to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. He's now in the presidential palace, meeting with Hamid Karzai, they're getting ready to sign this long-term strategic cooperation agreement between the United States and Afghanistan.
What happens after 2014, when all U.S. troops, all NATO troops are supposed to be out of the country, how many troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014, how much U.S. aid will be provided on an annual basis. What about the NATO allies? Will they continue to provide economic and military assistance to Afghanistan?
They've got a framework agreement that they've been working on for a long time. They resolved it only in the last few weeks. Now the formal signing ceremony, the president flying over to Afghanistan to actually sign the documents together with Hamid Karzai. There will be observers there from both the U.S. and Afghan side.
The president will then go back to Kabul and meet with troops and then address the American people, live from Kabul. That address around 7:30 pm Eastern. Chris Lawrence is over at the Pentagon watching all of this unfold. Chris, give us a little sense about what Defense Department officials believe the U.S. military role in Afghanistan will be after 2014.
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they think it's going to be somewhat robust. Wolf, when it comes to counterterrorism operations. Now the exact size of that force, that still has to be worked out. In fact, you mentioned what's going to be the size of the force post 2014. We don't even know what the side of the force is going to be next year. We know there's 90,000 American troops in Afghanistan right now.
It's the primary reason why most Americans are investing in Afghanistan and care what happens in Afghanistan. That number will drop to about 68,000 by the fall. The big question is how many of those 68,000 Americans will still be fighting in Afghanistan this time next year in the next fighting season?
The commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen threw out that number as a number to go in with. In other words, that's sort of his starting point, 68,000, carrying that into 2013. If the president were to choose that, he would definitely have some allies among some Republicans on Capitol Hill, like Senator John McCain, who have been arguing for a very robust U.S. presence right up until the very end. Of course, you have got some people on the other side who say 60,000, way too many to carry until late next year, and that drawdown needs to speed up some.
BLITZER: A lot of work still remaining to be done. This has been the longest war in U.S. history. Bob Baer is joining us right now, a former CIA officer, a CNN contributor. It was October 2001, a month after 9/11, Bob, as you well remember. The U.S. deployed, sent in troops to Afghanistan, now May 2012, the U.S. still has almost 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, several thousand NATO troops there as well. And they're trying to work out some sort of long-term strategic cooperation plan. As you take a look at this, Bob, what goes through your mind as we await the president getting ready to address the American people on this, the first anniversary of bin Laden's death?
BOB BAER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, going back to October 2001, what was very clear, it was a very easy victory. It was small CIA teams that went in with the Special Forces. They moved very quickly. The Taliban caved under bombardment.
We took the country in months and subdued it. The problem is we stayed too long and, as happens in Afghanistan, one of the ethnic -- the ethnic plurality of the country, the Pashtuns have resisted. And they've gone into a resistance and combined with remnants of Al Qaeda and it's still continuing to simmer and it's not going to be a clear victory even in 2014.
BLITZER: Well, we don't know what is going to happen in a few weeks or months in Afghanistan, let alone 2014. We know that Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, he has been in business there basically since the end of 2001, he was elected then.
He remains in power right how. Bob Baer (ph), all of our reporters, analysts, stand by. Let's take another quick break, resume the coverage, the President of the United States is in Kabul right now at the presidential palace, meeting with Hamid Karzai. They're about to sign an historic long-term strategic corporation agreement.
BLITZER: The President of the United States is in Afghanistan right now. He landed at Bagram air base not that long ago, about two hours or so ago. There you see the landing. This is videotape that has been fed in. The president then boarded a military helicopter and flew to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and drove via motorcade to the presidential palace to meet with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan.
They're getting ready to sign this long-term strategic cooperation agreement. They've worked out a framework, a lot of details still must be resolved. But they're going to have a formal signing ceremony. That's coming up soon. And then later tonight, 7:30 pm Eastern, the president will be delivering an address to the American people from Afghanistan and also be meeting with U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. All this happening on the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Nic Paton Walsh is in Kabul for us. Set the scene for us, Nic. We know the rumors have been wild throughout the day in the Afghan capital. We all know he's at the presidential palace right now. We assume he's very secure inside that presidential palace. But all of this was top secret, given the security precautions that are necessary to protect the President of the United States. It's -- first of all, tell our viewers what time it is in Afghanistan right now and what's going on.
NIC PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're just past midnight. About six hours ago, one of the leading Afghan TV stations here broke the news that Obama was already in Kabul, sparking a number of Afghan- U.S. (INAUDIBLE) to immediately denied that, say he was not in Kabul. I heard from one Afghan official that, in fact, presidential palace's staff were asked to go home around about midday, sparking obviously rumors that there may be some sort of a VIP visit due in forthcoming hours.
As you say, he's been to Bagram, the traditional entry point, very secure place for VIPs such as the President of the United States. And of course now on to the presidential palace in Kabul, where they should sign this vital strategic partnership agreement, Wolf.
BLITZER: Nic, stand by for a moment. Gloria Borger is here in Washington with me. Gloria, as we look at the video coming in, the president on the ground in Afghanistan right now, you're working your sources. What are you hearing?
GLORIA BORGER, POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I've just been communicating via e-mail with a senior White House adviser who are is actually with the president in Kabul and I asked him the question, what are you going to do when Republicans charge that this is political? It's a political trip, we've already had a back and forth on the killing of Osama bin Laden and whether the president was spiking the football or not a little bit.
And his response to me is we're here to sign a very important agreement that helps bring this war to a close. The president was going to spend today with the troops. And what better day to do it than today? So not really an answer to my question, Wolf. It's very clear the Democrats do not want to cede the national security issue to --
BLITZER: They don't want to cede it?
BORGER: -- to the Republicans.
BORGER: Exactly. They know that this war, 7 out of 10 Americans opposed the war in Afghanistan. They want to show that this is a president who is bringing it to a close. And as this aide points out, what better day to do it than today? Now I'm sure some Republicans will have something to say about it, but he is a president, going to spend time with the troops.
BLITZER: Yes, and there's obviously nothing wrong with that. Obviously, as I've been pointing out, it does speak volumes though that the President of the United States, 11 years almost into this war, still cannot arrive in Afghanistan in daylight, make an announcement --
BORGER: That's right.
BLITZER: -- do a formal arrival ceremony. He has got to do all of this in top secret security arrangements. And that they can't even have the signing ceremony in daylight. They have to do it literally in the middle of the night. It will be 1:00 am or 2:00 am in Afghanistan their time when they finally do this, and it speaks volumes to what's going on, how delicate this situation remains right now.
The speech he's going to give at 7:30 pm Eastern, we'll of course have live coverage here on CNN. It will be a very important speech, not only substantively on national security issues, U.S.-Afghan relations, but everyone it comes in the context of a presidential campaign.
BORGER: Right. And this is a White House that clearly doesn't want to be seen duplicating anything close to what George W. Bush did on the aircraft carrier with the mission accomplished sign. That is not what this White House wants to do. They want to say this was a war that we needed to get out of. We are doing it in the appropriate way.
And as you know, Wolf, Republicans are complaining about this timetable for withdrawal. They don't think there should be a set timetable, they believe that that lets your enemies know exactly what you're up to. So this will be an issue, no doubt, in the presidential campaign, but it is also not as if Republicans are saying we ought to say in Afghanistan for the next 10 years in a combat role.
BLITZER: Yes. And this is obviously a very, very sensitive issue indeed.
All right. I think we'll take another quick break. We'll continue our special coverage here on CNN right after this.
BLITZER: Breaking news we're watching out of Afghanistan. President Obama has flown over to Afghanistan, a 13-hour flight unannounced in top secret form, obviously, for security reasons, arriving two hours or so ago at the Bagram air base, then getting on a military helicopter, flying to the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, then getting into a motorcade, heading over to presidential palace to meet with the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai.
All of this designed to sign this long-term security cooperation agreement between the United States and Afghanistan, an agreement that's been in the works for months now, spelling out a general framework of what happens after 2014. All U.S. and NATO troops are supposed to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, although there will be a residual U.S. military force, we're told.
How many remains to be determined. What their exact functions beyond training remains to be determined. How much U.S. economic and military assistance in the billions of dollars will be provided to Afghanistan, that all has to be worked out. What about the European allies, the NATO allies. How much aid do they provide to Afghanistan? All of these details still up in the air. We're watching all of it unfold.
The president will culminate his few-hour visit to Afghanistan before returning to Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C., with an address to the American people 7:30 pm Eastern time the president will speak to the American people from Afghanistan on this strategic cooperation signing ceremony.
Brianna Keilar is our White House correspondent, watching all of this unfold. Brianna, the president flew over on Air Force One, as I said, a 13-hour flight from Andrews Air Base outside of Washington to the Bagram air base. And now he's on the ground and presumably having meetings with Hamid Karzai. What are officials at the White House saying about all of this? I assume it's been in the works for at least days if not weeks.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Certainly that would be the expectation, Wolf. You know, I've been checking in here in the last few minutes with some Republicans, who have been critical of President Obama, or certainly their bosses have when it comes to the Obama campaign and the White House's treatment of this anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, because obviously this trip -- quite extraordinary.
This is not something that happens very often, Wolf, you and I know, this trip coming amid a lot of criticism. I spoke with a spokeswoman for Senator John McCain, who has certainly led the charge in some of that, and what she told me was that the senator is very happy that President Obama is there to meet with troops and he will certainly be intently watching his remarks at 7:30 p.m. tonight and really awaiting those remarks before casting any judgment.
I also e-mailed with an adviser to Governor Mitt Romney, the president's presumed opponent come November, and it seems like the same thing, the Republicans are holding fire as they wait to see what the president will say.
We do know, Wolf, that the president will make mention of Osama bin Laden. We were talking about is this a coincidence, is this not a coincidence that he's there on this day. It is not a coincidence and certainly that is something he'll be acknowledging along with this strategic partnership that's being worked out with Afghanistan.
And, Wolf, I think it's just really interesting to note that this doesn't happen very often. This is the president's third trip to Afghanistan as president. He did go in 2008 when he was a presidential candidate. And even more, where he is right now, the presidential palace, this is something that he doesn't always get to.
In fact, his last visit in December of 2010, he wasn't able to go because of weather concerns and he wasn't able to physically meet with Hamid Karzai, even though Bagram Air Force Base is just 30-some miles north of Kabul. So this is extraordinary that they're meeting right now in Kabul, Wolf.
BLITZER: Brianna, stand by. Nic Paton Walsh is in Kabul for us.
Nic, you're there. It's, what, approaching 1:00 am in the middle of the night in Kabul. Is this a relatively safe time in the night? Most folks, I assume, are sleeping; they don't have a clue that the President of the United States is visiting the capital of Afghanistan.
WALSH: Wolf, the rumors have been running thick and fast since pretty much sundown here, when an Afghan TV station said President Obama was in town and correctly U.S. and Afghan officials doing their best to try and kill that idea off as quickly as possible.
Yes, it is here. This is a pretty quiet time of night, very few cars around -- very few cars around, frankly, most of the evening. Much of the center of this city and (INAUDIBLE) for understandable reasons, very few helicopters in the sky, something that you would normally expect to hear, and multiple noises from throughout the evening.
But only about two hours ago we heard the first suggesting of many -- heard the rumors of a presidential visit, that it perhaps was underway or perhaps the president was moving somewhere.
Certainly this meeting is (INAUDIBLE) as Brianna was saying, it's been very hard for Obama to get to the presidential palace at all previously. It is a place that had been targeted in the past by rocket fire from the insurgents, not recently and of course they have security concerns here. I think you'll wake up tomorrow and find Afghans, many of them only learning of the president's visit, once he's (INAUDIBLE) in the air on the direction home, Wolf.
BLITZER: Nic, stand by for a moment, as we watch. There's Air Force One on the ground at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan. The president is in Kabul. He left Bagram about an hour or so ago and flew by helicopter, military helicopter to the capital of Afghanistan. Gloria Borger is watching all of this unfold with me here in Washington.
A relatively new, recent polls that CNN and ORC put together on the American public's attitude toward Afghanistan. The American public really doesn't favor this continuing war 10-plus years into it.
BORGER: No, in fact our poll shows that 72 percent of Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan and over a majority of them believe, 61 percent of them believe that things are going badly there, and so withdrawing from Afghanistan is clearly something, Wolf, that is popular in this country. People don't believe we can afford this war anymore. People are not sure what we've received out of it.
And what the president is doing, I think, partly in going over there in order to spend time with the troops is also to say we are winding down this war. We are offering a strategic embrace to Hamid Karzai, but not a military embrace any longer after a particular point, although we will have some kind of presence there until 2024, Wolf.
BLITZER: Well, the details though -- BORGER: We don't know what the details --
BLITZER: -- have to be worked out.
BLITZER: This is a long-term agreement.
BLITZER: And we don't know how stable that regime of President Hamid Karzai is going to be. A lot of this is built on some wishful thinking, as we say.
BORGER: That's right.
BLITZER: It's been going on way longer than so many people thought, if someone would have said in October 2001, a month after 9/11 that almost 100,000 -- 90,000 U.S. troops would still be in Afghanistan in May of 2012, people would have said that's not likely.
BORGER: No. And I think this becomes an issue of the economy. When people are worried about their own livelihoods and their future and they see the amount we've been spending in Afghanistan it becomes even more of a political problem.
BLITZER: And as I've often pointed out the U.S. is spending $2 billion every single week. Every single week in Afghanistan, maintaining 90,000 U.S. troops there. That's $100 billion a year and that's going to go on at least through the end of 2014.
This agreement only deals with what happens after 2014, presumably the price tag to U.S. taxpayers will go down significantly after 2014, but it's still very, very high.
Let's take another quick break and resume our coverage. We have a lot -- a lot to assess, a lot to report. New pictures coming in from Afghanistan as well, remember, the president will address the American people from Afghanistan 7:30 P.M. Eastern tonight.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news out of Afghanistan right now. The President of the United States is in Kabul at the presidential palace with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president. They're getting ready to sign a formal long-term strategic cooperation agreement and later, 7:30 pm Eastern the President of the United States, President Obama, will address the American people from Afghanistan. We'll have all the breaking news coverage in "THE SITUATION ROOM" right after this.