Obama: Defeat of al Qaeda "within our reach"

(CBS News) WASHINGTON - President Obama got back to the U.S. Wednesday morning after a highly secret, super-fast trip halfway around the world to Afghanistan.

In a televised speech he said, with the war winding down, Afghanistan and the U.S. can see "the light of a new day."

There was official business to do there -- an agreement to sign, U.S. troops to greet, but the timing of the trip - on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death - makes it possible that it would also be viewed as part of his re-election effort.

But on Wednesday morning, likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney struck a tone of unity. In a statement, he kept the focus on the troops, writing, "We are united as one nation in our gratitude to our country's heroes."

During the brief stop, which lasted just over six hours, Mr. Obama addressed the U.S. from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

He said the tide of battle has turned over the last three years - the time he's been in office - and that the U.S. has devastated al Qaeda's leadership.

"One year ago," he said, "from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set, to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild, is now within our reach."

The top-secret trip began and ended in darkness.

The president went from the airbase to a midnight meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, where the two leaders signed an agreement committing the U.S. to continue sending military advisers and aid after combat troops go home in 2014.

Mr. Obama also greeted the men and women stationed at Bagram. Two years ago, he agreed to a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan, bringing the total number serving there to more than 100,000. The president has promised that, by September, that number will be closer to 65,000.

"I recognize that many Americans are tired of war," Mr. Obama said. " ... I will not keep Americans in harm's way a single day longer than is absolutely required for our national security. But we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan, and end this war responsibly."

There are still questions about the readiness of the Afghan forces to whom U.S. troops will hand over the job of keeping the peace in Afghanistan. But commanders are starting to see progress on the ground.

"For the first time," says Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, "I felt as though there was some sense of nationhood there that, frankly, I hadn't felt for maybe the previous eight years."

To see Bill Plante's report, click on the video in the player above.

  • Bill Plante

    Bill Plante is a CBS News Senior White House Correspondent

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