On a surprise visit to Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama says a "time of war" is ending and that the defeat of Al-Qaeda is now "within reach."
"My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon," Obama said from Afghanistan's Bagram air base in an address televised nationwide in the United States.
The U.S. president, who arrived in the country late on May 1, spoke hours after signing an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai
that will broadly govern relations between the two nations following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, scheduled for the end of 2014.
The deal, hammered out over months of contentious negotiations, covers U.S.-Afghan relations in the spheres of security, governance, and economics and is meant to transition the United States from a foreign presence at war in the country to steadfast partner for a sovereign Afghanistan.
It does not commit Washington to any specific troop presence, but it does allow the United States to potentially keep troops in Afghanistan after the war ends for two specific reasons, Obama said.
CLICK HERE: Full Text Of Obama's Speech
"Within this framework, we'll work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014: counterterrorism and continued training," he said.
"But we will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people."
The pact also does not commit Washington to any specific level of spending, but it does pledge financial support for Kabul for a decade after the withdrawal of the last 87,000 U.S. soldiers. An additional 40,000 troops remain in the country from other nations as part of the NATO coalition.
The White House said the agreement committed Washington to "seek funding from Congress on an annual basis to support the training, equipping, advising, and sustaining of Afghan National Security Forces, as well as for social and economic assistance."
Afghan commitments include pledges to "strengthen accountability, transparency, oversight, and to protect the human rights of all Afghans -- men and women," the White House said.
In his speech, Obama also renewed his call for the Taliban to join Afghan-led reconciliation talks and said his administration has been in direct contact with the Taliban to that end. "The path to peace is now set before them," he said. "Those who refuse to walk it will face strong Afghan security forces, backed by the United States and our allies."
The U.S. president also looked ahead to the NATO summit in Chicago later this month, which will aim to secure pledges of financial support for Afghanistan. He also said a goal would be set in Chicago to have Afghan security forces take the lead across the country in 2013.
Critics have questioned whether Afghans will have the capacity to keep insurgents at bay after international troops depart.
The timing of Obama's visit was highly symbolic, as it came on the first anniversary of the killing of former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
Since last year's U.S. Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, ties between Afghanistan and Washington have been tested anew by the accidental burning of Korans at a U.S. base and the massacre of 17 civilians, including children, allegedly by a U.S. soldier.
The incidents have prompted Karzai to call for a quickened withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.
Written by Richard Solash, with reporting by AP and AFP