Lindsey Graham (Getty Images)
By RAJU CHEBIUM
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- A South Carolina senator who's a sharp critic of President Barack Obama has emerged as a strong supporter of an agreement Obama struck with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to shrink and retool the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham praised Obama for reaching the 10-year agreement, which would put Afghan forces in charge of their country's security beginning in 2014 and restrict the U.S. to a largely advisory role, save for a few joint counterterrorism operations.
"This is a day I have been looking forward to for over two years," Graham said in a statement after Obama's surprise visit to Afghanistan late Tuesday. "Under this agreement we put Afghans in the lead and withdraw the vast majority of our forces in 2014 with their honor and security intact."
The agreement "will be the end of the Taliban's dream of retaking Afghanistan," said Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has visited that war-ravaged Asian nation. "I am confident that with proper implementation, this will help secure our nation and allies from future attacks using Afghanistan as a staging area."
In a televised address from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on the one-year anniversary of Osama Bin Laden's killing, Obama reiterated that it's time to wind down the U.S. combat role now that the Taliban's momentum has been blunted and Afghan security forces are trained and ready to take over security operations.
"Over the last three years, the tide has turned," Obama said. "The goal that I set was to defeat al-Qaida, and deny it a chance to rebuild is is within reach."
As part of the 10-year agreement, "we'll work with Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014 -- counterterrorism and continued training," Obama added. "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."
Obama and Karzai signed the agreement just over a decade since U.S. forces first landed in Afghanistan to battle al-Qaida and oust the Taliban government following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Specifics of the deal have yet to be worked out.
Graham said he envisions a "follow-on counterterrorism force" to be in place after 2014, composed of American troops, transportation equipment and Special Forces units.
The U.S. is not "abandoning" Afghanistan, and the U.S. military presence after 2014 is an "insurance policy against the re-emergence of the Taliban and al-Qaida," Graham said. "The United States has fought too long and hard to fail long term in Afghanistan."