By midmorning Wednesday, Air Force One touched down at Andrews Air Force Base. President Barack Obama had returned from a surprise trip to Afghanistan that lasted a day but was meant to mark a transition to the end of the more than decadelong war.
There has been much debate about what the speech signifies and what it means for the long-term future of Afghanistan and America's involvement there. The agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that Obama touted, the strategic partnership agreement, is short on specifics and Obama's speech did not lay out any new timetable for the war.
While some observers say it's foolish to think the United States will actually leave the country, others say Obama's speech, both its symbolic occurrence and its contents, are signs of tremendous progress. At a minimum, a milestone has been reached despite tense relations. But what it means in practical terms for Americans is unclear, because after most troops leave in 2014, what remains has yet to be negotiated.
When Obama spoke of "a future in which war ends and a new chapter begins," what did that mean specifically?
There are approximately 88,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Last year, the United States reduced troop count in Afghanistan by 10,000, and an additional 23,000 troops will return home by the end of the summer. Obama said the rest will be removed after this summer at a "steady pace" through 2014.
But there is likely a battle on the horizon over how many soldiers should remain. In late March, Gen. John Allen, the top commander for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, publicly called for keeping more troops in the nation into 2013. Allen said he would prefer to maintain post-surge troop levels. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain has also been critical of the idea of reducing troop levels. McCain has said he's worried the recent scandals involving U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- the Quran burnings, the Kandahar massacre, photographs of soldiers holding body parts -- have left Afghanistan far too shaky a place to pull back from now.
Can the Afghans take charge?
In Obama's speech, he said the United States is training Afghan security forces, and that their numbers will top out at 352,000 this year. That force level will be sustained for three years, he said, and then be reduced. Does that make good security sense in the long run? Afghan forces need a lot more training, said Marine Maj. Gen. John A. Toolan, who spoke to CNN in late April after returning from commanding NATO forces in southern Afghanistan for a year.
"As the conventional forces leave, special operations forces will continue to be required because their (Afghan military) special operations capabilities are going to take a little bit more time to nurture and mature," he said.
Obama said Tuesday: "We'll work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014, counterterrorism and continued training."
Toolan said the Afghan military's human intelligence capability is good. But, he added, they still need intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets only the U.S. military has. "The Afghans know we have that and they want to have access, so I think we are going to have to provide that for a while past 2014," he said.
Negotiating with the enemy?
It may have come as a surprise to some Americans listening to the president's speech when he said, "We're pursuing a negotiated peace" with the Taliban.
What happened to smoking them out of their holes? Isn't the Taliban the enemy? Is this how to defeat them, by talking to them?
Al Qaeda and the Taliban are two different entities, though they are related.
The Taliban, a Sunni Islamist group, ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 until they were ousted by the 2001 American-led invasion. But starting around 2004, the movement regained force and mounted an insurgency against the Afghan government and Western forces.
Al Qaeda is a terrorist group created by Osama bin Laden. The Taliban has provided shelter and support to al Qaeda.
It's the norm for the Taliban to speak through official spokespersons. They even use Twitter.
But the Obama administration has said it believes Taliban members, from soldiers to even some leaders, are interested in pursuing reconciliation. The move has been supported by numerous leaders, including military officials, and a U.S. official said the talks are ongoing.
CNN reported months ago that a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan had been meeting secretly with Taliban negotiators for more than a year. There was talk of releasing five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay to be transferred to Qatar as a show of good faith in negotiations. The Taliban had established an office in Qatar for the talks, but suspended that office in March. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in January that the United States has "realistic" notions of "what is possible" and that Afghan President Hamid Karzai should "bear the ultimate responsibility and consequences of" the talks.
"It's obviously viscerally not what the average American may want to hear from their president about a war we've been fighting for more than 10 years," American University professor and terrorism expert Stephen Tankel said Wednesday.
"But the fact is that that is how these types of conflicts end -- through some kind of settlement, some agreement and talking. But no one can know whether this will work."
If it doesn't, could it mean more violence involving American troops? Tankel said yes. Obama strongly suggested that as well, but in more vague language. "Those who refuse to walk it will face strong Afghan security forces, backed by the United States and our allies," Obama said.
The fight beyond Afghanistan