President Obama's plan for ending the war in Afghanistan largely depends on whether the White House's gamble on direct talks with the Taliban pays out.
In a major address from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan Tuesday, Obama bluntly said "our goal is to destroy al Qaeda." The president and senior aides said a long-term security pact with Afghanistan that Obama signed early Wednesday gives Washington assurances to keep up the fight against the terror syndicate inside Afghanistan for another decade.
But Obama and senior administration officials trotted out a new conciliatory tone on the Taliban, al Qaeda's hosts-turned-battlefield ally. The president announced his administration is seeking "a negotiated peace" with the group that ruled Afghanistan until Sept. 11, and said U.S. forces would not "eradicate every vestige of the Taliban."
The commander in chief, standing before two mine-resistant trucks, told the nation "my administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban."
In sharp contrast to some American military commanders who talk openly about crushing remaining Taliban forces, Obama sent a message directly to Taliban leaders and foot soldiers at several points during his speech: Now is your best opportunity to lay down arms and focus on Afghanistan's future.
"We have made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws," Obama said. "Many members of the Taliban—from foot soldiers to leaders—have indicated an interest in reconciliation. A path to peace is now set before them."
Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says Obama's tone on Taliban talks "could give the Taliban more room to reconcile."
"By focusing on al Qaeda in terms of why we've been there and why we'll continue to be there, the president didn't say our focus is on keeping the Taliban from coming back to power," Bensahel says. "He is saying we don't care about what kind of government is formed, or who is in charge of it, as long as it doesn't allow al Qaeda to return. ... All Obama has agreed to is a shared commitment to building some kind of government. That is a very interesting development."
During a conference call with reporters before the president's nationally televised remarks, two top Obama administration officials had several opportunities to echo senior U.S. military commanders who have vowed to hammer Taliban forces this summer in eastern Afghanistan. Each time, the officials went in another direction.
"Every indication is that the Taliban, as well as other actors in the region, recognize that a strategic partnership agreement between the Afghan government and the United States, as well as the strategic partnership agreements that the Afghans have signed now with five or six other countries are indications that ... nefarious actors cannot wait out the international community," one of the officials told reporters.
The strategic agreement signed by Obama and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai features a laundry list of principals both side endorse. It is, however, short on details for how certain goals will be accomplished.
The senior administration official said the pact puts the "pieces in place to successfully execute on our core national security prerogative in Afghanistan, which is to dismantle and ultimately strategically defeat al Qaeda and to ensure that it can never come back here to a safe haven."
Nary a mention of dismantling the Taliban, which is the group American, NATO and Afghan troops have been battling day in and day out for nearly a decade. Senior U.S. military and intelligence officials say only 50 to 100 al Qaeda leaders and operatives are in Afghanistan.
Instead, the senior administration official trumpeted the White House's assessment that the pact with Kabul "bolsters our efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, where they can talk about the future of Afghanistan with the Afghan government."
Though Obama and his senior aides repeatedly said the deal with Kabul was tailored to allow the U.S. to continue its pursue al Qaeda, some congressional Republicans are less than convinced.
Obama said Wednesday "the tide of war began here and it will end here." One senior House Republican aide says that sounds like Obama is declaring an end to the war on terrorism.
"So in 2014, we don't have to worry about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or any other subsidiary group?" the aide says.
Meantime, domestic politics also appear part of Obama's gamble.
"Remember, the Obama team is very good at politics. The focus on al Qaeda also is for the domestic audience, who knows Afghanistan is where al Qaeda planned the 9/11 attacks. That is why he is tying al Qaeda to why we can in large part leave, while keeping some forces there longer."
Obama offered a glimpse of his campaign trail message about why he is placing the decade-long conflict on a path toward its conclusion.
"As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America. An America where our children live free from fear, and have the skills to claim their dreams," Obama said. "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."
Such flowery rhetoric did not sit well with some Republicans in Washington.
"He had to fly 7,000 miles to wrap his remarks with the campaign stump speech?" asks the senior House GOP aide.