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Obama Barely Mentions Afghanistan During Speech


A heart-rending moment came towards the end of President Obama's State of the Union Address last night, when he spoke of an Army Ranger who was grievously wounded in Afghanistan. Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg was on his 10th combat tour when he was hit by a massive roadside bomb. He spent months in a coma and endured many surgeries, but was able to be in the audience between his father and First Lady Michele Obama for the president's speech.

There are about 37,000 American troops in Afghanistan now. Obama restated his plan to end all combat operations at the end of 2014

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year and America's longest war will finally be over.

MONTAGNE: The president said he wants to keep a small contingent of forces in Afghanistan to train Afghan troops and pursue al-Qaida. Except that President Hamid Karzai has refused to agree to a plan that would allow the U.S. and its allies to do that. And the president, in the past, has said that without a deal he would be forced to withdraw all troops, a zero option.

NPR's Sean Carberry is in Kabul and we reached him for reaction there. Sean, President Obama devoted only a couple paragraphs to Afghanistan in his address. Was there much for Afghans to react to?

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: People were quite happy with a couple of things he said. One is that he said the U.S. will support a unified Afghanistan. They're also particularly reassured by the fact that he didn't talk about the zero option. And that went over well with people like political analysts and parliamentarian Khalid Pashtoon.

KHALID PASHTOON: Before the speech, we were extremely worried. We were worried about the zero option. But since this morning, in Afghanistan, when we heard the speech, I'm pretty optimistic.

CARBERRY: So he says he's glad Obama didn't make any threats to pull out all troops. Though there was one word that stood out in that section and that was the word could; essentially saying that even if the deal is signed it's not a guarantee the U.S. forces will stay. And that is raising an eyebrow or two considering most people here do believe the Afghan forces need continued training and support from U.S. and NATO troops.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, let's - remind us about the security agreement the U.S. and Afghanistan negotiated last fall. And then, President Karzai said he had additional conditions that the U.S. must meet and wouldn't sign it. Where does it all stand now?

CARBERRY: It's still a stalemate. Karzai wants the U.S. to support free and fair presidential elections in April and to pledge not to interfere. He wants the U.S. to stop conducting military operations on Afghan homes. And he wants U.S. to start the peace process with the Taliban.

The U.S. had set a series of deadlines for the agreement to be signed, but they've come and gone, which seems to be emboldening Karzai to keep pushing.

MONTAGNE: Right, there is an election April. Karzai is not running. Can it wait for the next Afghan president?

CARBERRY: Well, U.S. officials say they can wait for maybe many months from now. The problem is that NATO countries are waiting for the U.S. to sign a security agreement before they make any commitments about what's going to happen after 2015. And they say they're going to need more time to plan and get approval from their home countries.

The longer the deal remains unsigned, uncertainty grows here. And that's having a huge impact on the economy - investment is slowing, and the Taliban are using this time to rebuild and are conducting a number of violent attacks in the last few weeks.

MONTAGNE: Sean, you very much.

CARBERRY: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Sean Carberry, speaking to us from Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.