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Obama's Surprise Trip to Afghanistan

Aired May 1, 2012 - 20:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, thanks very much. Thank you all for watching. If you are just joining us, this is a special edition of 360.

Tonight the breaking news, President Obama's surprise visit to Afghanistan. What he said to the troops there and what he said to the American people just about a half an hour ago. We just -- he just finished speaking. He's expected to leave shortly just before daybreak at Bagram Air Base where he arrived just after nightfall. All of this under the cover of darkness.

Reporters traveling with the president were sworn to secrecy until Air Force One touched down in the war zone at an airbase that often comes under Taliban mortar fire. From there he quickly went by chopper to Kabul, another war zone where he and Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, signed that Strategic Partnership Agreement. You see the ceremony right there.

It promises American support for Afghanistan through 2024. Ten years after the last American combat forces are scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2012. The president -- excuse me, in 2014. The president made some brief remarks, then headed back to Bagram for a rally with the troops.

More than 130,000 men and women from 50 countries serve in Afghanistan. The vast majority, about 90,000 are American right now. A short time later, just about half an hour ago Mr. Obama spoke to the United States laying out his vision for ending America's longest war, saying Afghanistan is where the war began and where it will end. Here's a portion of his address.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today I signed a historic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that defines a new kind of relationship between our countries. A future in which Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation. And we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states. A future in which war ends and new chapter begins.

Ten years ago, the United States and our allies went to war to make sure that al Qaeda could never again use this country to launch attacks against us. Despite initial success for a number of reasons, this war has taken longer than most anticipated. But over the last three years, the tide has turned. We broke the Taliban's momentum. We've built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al Qaeda's leadership taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago from 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. We've begun to transition to Afghan responsibility for security. Already nearly half of the Afghan people live in places where Afghan security forces are moving into the lead. This month at a NATO summit in Chicago, our coalition will set a goal for Afghan forces to be in the lead for combat operations across the country next year.

International troops will continue to train, advise, and assist the Afghans and fight alongside them when needed. But we will shift into a support role as Afghans step forward. As we do, our troops will be coming home. Last year we removed 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Another 23,000 will leave by the end of the summer. After that, reductions will continue at a steady pace with more and more of our troops coming home.

And as our coalition agreed, by the end of 2014, the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country.

As we move forward, some people will ask why we need a firm timeline. The answer is clear. Our goal is not to build a country in America's image or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and most importantly many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al Qaeda and we are on a path to do exactly that.

Afghans want to assert their sovereignty and build a lasting peace. That requires a clear timeline to wind down the war. Others will ask why don't we leave immediately. That answer is also clear. We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize. Otherwise our gains could be lost. And al Qaeda could establish itself once more.

And as commander-in-chief, I refuse to let that happen. We emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home. It's time to renew America. An America where our children live free from fear and have the skills to claim their dreams. A united America. Of grit and resilience. Where sunlight glistens off soaring new towers in downtown Manhattan and we build our future as one people, as one nation.

This time of war began in Afghanistan and this is where it will end. With faith in each other and our eyes fixed on the future, let us finish the work at hand and forge a just and lasting peace.

May God bless our troops and may God bless the United States of America.


COOPER: That was President Obama about 25 minutes ago at Bagram Air Base. We've just gotten words Air Force One is wheels up, as they say. The president is heading home. Obviously we're not going to be able to report that as it's happening for security reasons. But we're told it has now happened.

Let's get some quick reaction now on the speech, the trip, the politics surrounding the bin Laden anniversary, and the reality of what's happening on the ground in Afghanistan. And with us tonight, GOP strategist Ari Fleischer. He's White House press secretary for George W. Bush. He's had an inside view to surprise trips like this one. So is Democratic strategic Paul Begala. Full disclosure, he's advising the leading pro-Obama super PAC right now.

Also with us tonight, our political analyst Gloria Borger, David Gergen, and Peter Bergen, author of "Manhunt," the new book, the 10- year search for bin Laden. A fascinating read, really taking you inside the search.

I just want to get a quick headline just from everybody about what they thought of this speech. Ari Fleischer?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think you've witnessed the power of incumbency, Anderson. This is what presidents do. This is what commanders in chief can do. I have to add also, you know, I think, in the post-communist, post-9/11 world, both parties are deeply split about foreign policy. There's a real ambivalence about fighting and winning where we're tired of it, we want everybody to come home. We want our troops home. This is -- this is a difficult time in foreign policy. It's hard to see this being a significant issue in any election.

COOPER: Paul Begala, a headline from you.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think right the power of incumbency but the responsibility of power. When Barack Obama took office, there were 32,000 American troops in Afghanistan. Now there are almost 90,000. And there were 160,000 fighting in Iraq and now there are just a very few.

He has put a powerful stamp on America's military conduct in that region. And he is now responsible for every one of those troops who he saw today.

COOPER: Right now the timetable 22,000 troops to leave by the end of this summer. According to the president, some 68,000 to remain until the end -- sometime around 2014.

Gloria Borger, a headline from you.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think what the president did in going over there and signing this document was essentially a strategic embrace of Afghanistan, saying we're not going to desert you. We are going to be committed to you at least until 2024. And he came with a plan, Anderson, and said this is how we're going to make the transition to the sovereignty of Afghanistan to having its own troops lead the way.

Quicker than some of us thought in their own defense. And also talked about interestingly enough, a negotiated peace in which he said we would start talking to the Taliban. I think that's going to be quite controversial.

COOPER: David Gergen?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Excellent speech. Interesting how much more forceful and how much more of a leader he is on the foreign affairs front than in domestic policy. There's a man who had a plan going all the way back to the campaign. He said he was going to try to crush al Qaeda and take out bin Laden. He's done both.

And he did it tonight not by taking praise on himself but by god given credit to the troops as he should. Even as he extended America's stay in the -- in the region.

COOPER: Let's dig deeper in some of the details, Peter Bergen. You called this an agreement to make an agreement. What do you mean?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, you know, according to senior administration officials I spoke to this afternoon, there's going to be about a year where they basically negotiate the actual details, which include the money for the Afghan National Security forces and the number of troops on the ground, obviously, opposed of 2014.

You know, and some of that's condition based. But to get to a status of forces agreement which is the real technical term for a longer -- but this is what is described as a non-binding executive agreement. I don't think that really means very much in practice. It's not a treaty.

COOPER: It's more symbolic.

BERGEN: It's more -- it's -- but, you know, I don't want to discount the fact this is an important milestone on a long process that has been going on for awhile. But I also think this says pretty something big about President Obama. Here's a guy who was an anti-war president. He came in on that ticket. He tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan. Now he's saying they're staying for another dozen years. He quadrupled the number of drone strikes in Pakistan. He's fighting a covert war in Yemen and Somalia. He intervened in Libya very quickly.

He's being kind of an unexpected president, I think, for a lot of people who thought of him as sort of basically a negotiator rather than somebody who was very comfortable with the use of force in certain circumstances.

COOPER: So much, though, of what he talked about tonight depends on the Afghan National Security Forces being able to stand up to go on patrol. To --


COOPER: -- have operations. You and I have been out on a patrol in Helmand Province and elsewhere in Afghanistan with the Afghan troops. I think you and I were on a patrol where we were with some Afghan troops who stole some corn from local villagers and the U.S. military who was with them made them give it back.

BERGEN: And I've been on patrol with Afghan policemen who are smoking pot, and you know, it -- you know, this -- they are not as -- I mean complete -- I'm scratching my head to think of a really significant operation that the Afghan military has conducted independently. Now in Iraq you could point to that where for instance they went down to Basra and did a big military operation in 2007. That is yet to happen with the Afghan National Security Forces. You know, are they getting better? Yes. But it's going to be awhile.

COOPER: Peter, also, I want to play something that President Obama said about al Qaeda. Let's listen.


OBAMA: One year ago from 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.


COOPER: You've just written a definitive book about the hunt for bin Laden, "Manhunt." The president touched a lot about hunting al Qaeda. The Taliban, though, I mean, most people acknowledge not much of an al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan anymore. The Taliban is still very much a presence and able to -- we just saw two weeks ago -- operate -- launched attacks in the capital itself.

BERGEN: Yes. But I mean I think these are spectacular attacks that don't necessarily mean that -- you know, I can't think of a single major city that the Taliban, or even big town, that the Taliban have ever held. I mean they can't do a tad offensive on Kabul. That -- you know, the point is that relative weakness -- you know, the Afghan National Security forces who are relatively weak. And you've got the Taliban who are a little bit stronger than they've been in the past.

But that -- you know, if we sort of left tomorrow, the Taliban would -- might take over a large chunk of the country. Not because they're strong, but because the Afghan National Security forces are very weak. So building those forces up and having the plan with the advisers going forward after 2014 is critical to make sure they don't have that success.

COOPER: David Gergen, just yesterday before a lot of people know anything about this trip, you wrote a column for asking whether the White House was overselling the impact of bin Laden's death. That was your quote. Hyping it essentially for political gain. What do you think of this trip now?

GERGEN: Well, Anderson, whether or not you like President Obama, any veteran of the White House would have -- and I think Ari would agree with this -- has to admire the sort of professionalism that went into this these last days. They had this major public relations offensive that built up to this climactic, dramatic moment tonight on national television with this long trip.

You know, all of that, I think, has been done partly for substantive reasons and clearly, a large part of it is for political reasons looking toward November. I have -- I have felt as Ari felt that they went overboard in their ad on going after Romney. I thought they were excessive on a lot of this. It does go with the territory.

What I think has been left out of the discussion and Peter would be very good on this. And that is we have -- we are leaving one era where bin Laden was threatening to us but we're moving into a new era that, you know, serious observers are saying, this is actually going to be more dangerous than it looks.

You know, Pakistan remains volatile. It's building some 12 nuclear weapons a year. You've got the -- you've got -- al Qaeda is -- Islamic militants are taking more political control in the Middle East in places like Egypt. And so I -- that has all been left out of this. And I do think that there's been a quality about what the White House has done as sort of saying, well, basically we're now safe when we are not.

And there is a lot out there in this new -- in this new world that we really ought to be -- that's where I think the Republicans ought to go. What are we going to do about this new world into which we're emerging?

COOPER: Gloria, I mean was this good politics?

BORGER: Was what good --

COOPER: Was this trip?

BORGER: The trip?


BORGER: Well, it's -- everything is going to be seen as a political move. And given the fact that they released the Web video on Osama -- the killing of Osama bin Laden, and would Mitt Romney have gone down the same path and they got in a fight, they set themselves up for this trip. But -- so people are going to see it through a political lens.

From their point of view, however, let me say that what the president was able to do this evening was to tell the American public that he is winding down or -- two unpopular wars. Iraq, Afghanistan. You know, seven out of 10 Americans want to get out of Afghanistan. Most of them want to get out tomorrow. And not wait until 2014.


BORGER: So from the president's point of view, this works.

COOPER: We got to take a quick break. We're going to have more with our panelists. You mentioned Mitt Romney. We are anticipating some sort of statement from him. We'll obviously bring that to you. A lot more to talk about in our special coverage.

Let us know what you think. Do you think the U.S. should get out sooner? What did you think of the president's trip? We're on Facebook, Google Plus. Tweet me right now @Andersoncooper.

At the top, you heard the fairly low key message from the president. Up next a more fiery message to the troops that the president gave and new details about how risky conditions on the ground -- well, just how risky they still are.



OBAMA: We did not choose this war. This was came to us on 9/11. And there are a whole bunch of folks here I'll bet who signed up after 9/11. We don't go looking for a fight. But when we see our homeland violated, when we see our fellow citizens killed, then we understand what we have to do.


COOPER: President Obama tonight at Bagram Air Base 10 and a half years after al Qaeda attacked and American forces drove them out, a year to the day after Navy SEALs shot and killed Osama bin Laden. Mr. Obama working without a teleprompter, looking energized, his supported would day, to be in the company of the troops. He thanked them for their service.


OBAMA: When the final chapter of this war is written, historians will look back and say not only was this the greatest fighting force in the history of the world, but all of you also represented the values of America in an exemplary way. I could not be prouder of you. And I want you to understand I know it's still tough. I know the battle's not yet over.

Some of your buddies are going to get injured. Some of your buddies may get killed. And there's going to be heartbreak and pain and difficulty ahead. But there's a light on the horizon. Because of the sacrifices you've made. Not only were we able to blunt the Taliban momentum, not only were we able to drive al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but slowly and systematically we've been able to decimate the ranks of al Qaeda. And a year ago we were finally able to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.



COOPER: This trip is not only a surprise, it's also been a race to get the president in and out of the war zone as quickly as possible. Bagram Air Base has been a major target. So is the area surrounding the presidential palace in Kabul, which came under heavy rocket attack just a couple of weeks ago, which explains why President Obama did not linger there today.

For more on the tight security surrounding the trip and all presidential trips to combat zones, we're joined by Nick Paton Walsh on the ground in Kabul, as well as chief national correspondent, John King, host of "JOHN KING, USA".

Nick, it does not get much riskier than a trip like this for the president on the ground. What kind of security measures went into this visit particularly considering the attacks that we saw in Kabul just weeks ago?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, initially it was secrecy. I mean the Afghan media broke this about 6:00 local time. U.S. and Afghan officials desperately trying to fire fight that. We even heard from one Afghan official, in fact, that everybody in the presidential palace was sent home around about noon but still there were attempts to keep this under wraps.

The path he took, pretty much as safe as you can imagine. Flying into Bagram, a base occasionally attacked but one with an immense American fire power and protective capability for Air Force One. Then the helicopter ride into the capital. And then the motorcade into the presidential palace.

We saw a city pretty much in lockdown. Very, very little air traffic in the skies above us. We normally hear many helicopters buzzing low over the city during the evening. But nothing really until around about an hour before we heard news of the president's arrival, suggesting perhaps that some of the rumors of a very, very important person arriving may be true -- Anderson.

COOPER: You can see dawn breaking behind Nick Paton Walsh there in Kabul. Significant because the president wanted to get in and out under the cover of darkness. And the president has left Afghanistan, wheels up around the top of the hour.

John, you know firsthand what it's like to travel with the president on a trip like this. You went to Baghdad with President Bush. From being on Air Force One, what is that -- what does that entail? What is it like?

JOHN KING, ANCHOR, CNN'S "JOHN KING, USA": It's a pretty dicey ride in. Now sometimes perhaps they're overstaying the risk, but they want to be extra -- extra cautious with the president.

You showed the pictures of this president's visit. You see Air Force One. It's a 747. Has the United States of America stamped on the side. That big flag on the back. The national security team advises the president, please don't do that. They advised President Bush when I took that trip six years ago next month to Baghdad, they advised President Obama the same thing. They'd rather he them a nondescript military plane, the type that flies in every couple of hours at these air force bases because then it won't look any different.

But he wanted to take this to send a signal. President Bush wanted to do that. I was recruited, I just left the White House beat six years ago. And the White House approached me and said, will you do this on a secret basis, tell as few people as possible within your news organization.

When you get on the plane, Anderson, they tell you turn off all your electronic devices, close all the windows, they shut off the televisions, they shut off the LED clocks. They don't want anyone to see that plane coming in because of the risk of a mortar fire or a rocket-propelled grenade, something like that.

The way out is even dicer. Because then everybody knows the president of the United States is on the ground. Everyone has seen the pictures of Air Force One. They know it's the 747, in the case of the trip I took and this trip today. On that -- when I left Baghdad six years ago, closed all the windows, again, shut everything down. They don't want any electronic signal coming off that airplane that somebody can track to fire a missile at.

And Air Force One is like, imagine, you're revving your car with your foot on the break, you gun the gas and then a 747 going up at a 45 or even more of an angle. You could feel the G's. They got that plane up and out as fast as they could.

COOPER: Nick, you're on the ground in Kabul. Are Afghan forces in control of -- do you see U.S. forces, international forces or do you see as in mostly now just Afghan forces on the streets?

WALSH: To be honest in Kabul it's very much an Afghan controlled city. You occasionally see U.S. vehicles patrolling around. The occasional armored group but they maintain a pretty low presence. So Afghans are pretty in charge of the capital's security for sometime now. The question is, how good a job are they doing. And I think you heard much of President Obama's speech extolling the virtues of Afghan security force which to be honest to be ground, as you heard Peter say, is often very patchy.

I mean I've seen American soldiers regularly express deep frustration if not (INAUDIBLE) ridiculed, to be honest, of lack of professionalism of the Afghan security force. And of course at this expedited timeline for withdrawing, we're increasingly hearing, we're being basically told on a more regular basis how good the security forces are and how they can keep this insurgency, which has given NATO a significant trouble over the last decade. How they can keep that insurgency in check.

COOPER: We've also seen increasing attacks by Afghan security forces or insurgent dressed as Afghan security forces against U.S. personnel and international forces.

Nick Paton Walsh, stay safe.

John King, thank you very much.

More now with Peter Bergen. And joining us former Bush homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend, and retired Army Major General James Spider Marks. Frank, just strategically, as you look at this agreement that's been signed, how significant is it?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, look, it's -- it is a sort of rhetorical commitment to the Afghans. And it is significant that the president went there to sign it, to give them reassurance.

COOPER: He could have stayed in Washington and just sign it and done this via -- you know.

TOWNSEND: That's right.

COOPER: Electronically, whatever.

TOWNSEND: But it makes sense that he wanted to go there as evidence of his commitment to Afghanistan. I will tell you the most important part is, will it get funded by Congress and what will troop levels be. He talked about once you get to the 68,000 in September, there will be a steady drawdown through 2014 until we're out of Afghanistan. But that timetable has to be recommended and the numbers will have to be recommended by U.S. generals on the ground and what will that look like and what is the Afghan force ability to fill that vacuum.

COOPER: There's also the question about what other international forces will still be there and willing to stay. I mean there's a NATO meeting coming up. There's going to be talking about NATO funding for this international force. But we've seen a number of -- over the years concerns about the role international forces have been willing to play. There've been strict rules of engagement for some of the various forces, Peter.

BERGEN: Yes, and some countries have pulled out. I mean,, the Australians, for instance, who aren't part of NATO, pulled out. I think of the NATO summit in -- on May 28th in Chicago. I mean if NATO is going to survive as an idea, it's got to make the Afghan thing sort of plausibly work.

And I think, you know, $4 billion is what's required to fund these Afghan National Security forces. In the grand scheme of things, that's not a great deal of money. $500 million has been almost by the Afghans. You know, I'm sure at Chicago there will be some agreement for some level of money from, let's say, the French or the British, that the president will be able to say yes, we have people who are willing to finance this. And if you think we're spending -- you know, we've been spending about $100 billion a year in Afghanistan right now, $4 billion is a quite sort of relative small amount.

COOPER: It's a lot -- I mean a lot of Americans hearing that are going to think that's a huge amount of money, that if it was spent in the United States might have a big impact. To those who say look at corruption in Afghanistan and where does this money go, and this is a poor country, how come it cost billions and billions of dollars to fund, you know, a military? BERGEN: Well, as a factual matter it costs about a -- for an American soldier it's -- and an Afghan soldier, the cost is about a 50th less. So, you know, from a (INAUDIBLE) cost of point of view it makes sense. You know, on the morning of September 11th, the United States lost $500 billion in the course of basically three hours in terms of the impact it had on the American economy. So from a pure cost benefit analysis, probably worth spending a fair amount of money in Afghanistan going forward to prevent that.

COOPER: General Marks, do you believe there is a reason to have increasing confidence in the Afghan National Army, in the Afghan National Police force?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, U.S. ARMY (RETIRED): We have no other choice. We need to have confidence in what they can achieve. Clearly you look at where they started from and where they are and there clearly is a long road ahead in terms of reaching a level of professionalism that's required in each policeman, each element of the security force, and then certainly in the military as well. And all of those --


COOPER: Would you trust them if you're out on patrol with them?

MARKS: I'd trust but verify. I mean I have no choice but to have that soldier -- that Afghan soldier next to me, I mean that would be the mission. But I have to verify that that individual is in fact capable of doing what he needs to do. And I'd probably sleep like a lot of guys with one eye open. So it's a matter of where you start from and what the expectations are and can we get there from where we are today.

And clearly we have until 2014 to improve that status and then beyond what -- I think the numbers are significant because that sells locally. That sells in the United States. That's where the audience needs to understand it. But within those numbers, it's very important that we get into some level of detail. And that's intelligence and that's special ops guys and that's training forces to ensure that the Afghan forces can continue to grow.

COOPER: General Marks, let me ask this question. And maybe a dumb question now. I've been on patrols, a lot of these patrols over the years with Afghan forces and with our forces on the ground who I have huge respect for. But how come -- I mean, the Afghans did a pretty good job against the Soviets fighting the Soviets. How come they need all this military training?

I mean are we trying to get them to a level -- clearly we're trying to get them to a level that they've never had before, but haven't they been able to defend themselves and fight wars? And the Taliban seems pretty capable of conducting strikes without having a huge foreign force spending billions of dollars training them.

MARKS: True. Well, first of all, the Soviets presented themselves in different formations than the United States is now training them to present themselves. The Soviets had large formations and the Mujahideen can do a pretty good job of going after those. And the Soviets decided time to go. They didn't. The Soviets did not transition into a much more aggressive counterinsurgency type of operations.

Now in terms of recruiting the Taliban and what you asked them to do, it's a very -- it's an incredible differentiator between what we're asking a U.S. soldier to do and what we're asking a Taliban soldier to do. So if you ideologically can get that young Taliban, potential Taliban recruit to sign up, the only task you're asking them to do is sacrifice his life and carry something into some crowded village.

COOPER: It's easier to do than try to provide security for a village or trying to be a police officer in a town. Fran, do you have confidence in the Afghan forces can get up to the future?

TOWNSEND: I think the key that nobody is talking about is the issue you raised, Anderson, and that is corruption. You know, across two administrations, we've not effectively as the United States dealt with the corruption and dealt with the weakness of the central Karzai government there.

COOPER: Also that gets to a soldier's willingness to fight for a central government. And if the general is building a McMansion in Kabul, the foot soldier isn't necessarily going to trust that general or want to fight for that person.

TOWNSEND: That's exactly right. So we haven't very effectively dealt with the corruption problem up until now. That was true in the Bush administration. It's true in the Obama administration partly because we don't want to talk about it. Until we address this directly with the Karzai government, we're not going to solve it. The timeline now is getting shorter and shorter.

COOPER: There are allegations about members of Hamid Karzai's family involved in corruption as well. More with the panel ahead.

Coming up, Senator John McCain weighing in on the president's trip to Afghanistan whether he sees it as the president spiking the football in the end zone. That's next.


COOPER: President Obama heading home tonight from Afghanistan. We touched on this at the top coming when it does and where it does. It is inevitable there is a political opponent to the trip.

At this point in the election cycle, Mr. Obama, you'll recall, left Washington with Republicans including the presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney criticizing his decision to run a campaign ad on the web about the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Not much, though, in the way of partisan talk about tonight's trip. Senator John McCain is calling it a good thing. Here's what he said exclusively to CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What do you think about the president's surprise secretive trip to Afghanistan?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I think it's a good thing. I think it's always good when the president goes to where young men and women are in harm's way.

And I think that many of us who have been involved in Afghanistan are very supportive of the strategic partnership agreement, which I'm sure he'll be talking about, and we think the agreement is good. We obviously would like to know the details.

BASH: Now Senator, you have been very outspoken, very critical of what the president did recently, politically with an ad boasting about getting Osama Bin Laden and hitting Mitt Romney for it. Do you think that this trip is also part of his political campaign?

MCCAIN: No, I can't accuse the president of that. A lot of people both here and in Congress including Senator Lindsay Graham and Senator Lieberman worked on this strategic partnership agreement and it's important that we send a message to friends and enemies alike that the United States has a long-term commitment to Afghanistan.

BASH: So this is not spiking the football in the end zone, as he said.

MCCAIN: No, I don't view it as that, and I wish the president would explain more often to the American people why Afghanistan -- it's important that Afghanistan not return to a base for attacks on the United States of America.


COOPER: Dana joins me now. Obviously a much different tone than we heard from Senator McCain. A lot of that probably I'm guessing has to do with the fact the president is overseas. A lot of Republicans, a lot of Democrats do not want to criticize a sitting president when they're overseas.

BASH: That's definitely a part of it. It's thought of an old school tradition, but people like John McCain certainly keep it. But in this particular case, I've gotten no statements from Republicans at all since the president has spoken.

I think it's primarily because of the fact that he is in a war zone speaking in front of troops. But also because what you've heard from Republicans, the criticism that you've heard from them on Afghanistan is that the president doesn't talk enough about this war. In fact the last time he gave a major speech about it was back in June 2011, almost a year ago.

So it's hard for these Republicans to say you shouldn't go talk about it. You shouldn't go over there when they've been saying talk about it more. The other thing particularly senators like John McCain, Lindsay Graham, they've really been pushing the president to go forward with this strategic partnership agreement.

Because they are very concerned about pulling combat troops out at the end of 2014, at least this makes clear to everybody in the region that there will be a U.S. presence on the ground for a long time.

COOPER: All right, Dana, appreciate it. Let's bring in CNN political analyst David Gergen and Gloria Borger. Gloria, we heard from Senator McCain. Does it surprise you that even though their positions on the war in Afghanistan are so different, the senator did not criticize President Obama today?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I actually wasn't criticized because as Dana pointed out, he's kind of old school on that. Also he really supports this strategic agreement because he is a part of the Republican Party that wants to see a long-term commitment in Afghanistan.

I think one of the reasons you haven't heard from other Republicans is that actually -- and you know this, Anderson. There's division within the Republican Party. I mean, more than a majority of Republicans oppose the war in Afghanistan.

So Republicans want to get out of Afghanistan. And so the president went over there to announce that he's winding down in Afghanistan. And if you're a Republican, you know, that's kind of not a bad thing.

Because Republicans are very fiscally conscious and at a time when the economy is not good at home, there are more and more questions about whether the money that we're spending over there is cost effective.

COOPER: It is interesting, David, that we've reached a point where this war is unpopular amongst Democrats and the majority of Republicans as well.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It is interesting that we have that and people do want the war to end. But, Anderson, I would caution that I think President Obama and whether it's President Romney or not, can move forward with keeping troops on the ground as long as the casualty numbers are low.

And it's not terribly expensive. We after all have kept troops in Korea now for almost 60 years as you well know and other parts of the world. They've been in the Sinai for a long time.

And the public has gone along with that. The presence in Afghanistan in a volatile area of the world with Pakistan next door can be really helpful for American foreign policy.

This is something on which there will be bipartisan agreements. Yes, some people will complain, but as long as the casualties are down, it's not too expensive.

BORGER: Well, some liberal Democrats though, David, may really complain about it even if it's only in a training role. But as you know, this strategic agreement doesn't require that the United States do anything. It allows us to do that.

COOPER: The president talked about both the training role and a counterterrorism role. That's sort of undefined. There are a lot of different activities that can take place under a counterterrorism role.

BORGER: On purpose.

GERGEN: Yes. It's really important that a Democratic president has made a commitment to Afghanistan for another 12 years. If this had been a Republican, it might -- you know, and a Democrat were elected, you might see that unravel.

But if Mitt Romney were to become president, he's going to keep that agreement and so will Barack Obama for the next several years. I think the United States is -- even though there's going to be quibbling on the sides, I think the United States is very, very likely now to have a presence there for the foreseeable future.

COOPER: I'm sorry. We've got to leave it there. David Gergen, Gloria Borger, appreciate it.

President Obama's visit to Afghanistan and a speech from Bagram Air Base are fuelling a lot of talk tonight. Much more ahead with Ari Fleischer, Paul Begala, Peter Bergen as well. That's next.



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I've come to Afghanistan to mark a historic moment for our two nations and to do so on Afghan soil. I'm here to affirm the bonds between our countries, to thank American and Afghans who have sacrificed so much over these last 10 years and to look forward to a future of peace and security and greater prosperity for our nations.


COOPER: That's President Obama speaking just a short time ago during his surprise trip to Afghanistan. Joining us again, Republican strategist, Ari Fleischer, Democratic strategist Paul Begala, CNN national security analyst, Peter Bergen, and Retired Army Major General James "Spider" Marks.

Ari, in terms of politics and I hate to kind of talk about politics on a day like this, but do you anticipate tomorrow hearing a lot more about this trip from both the left and the right because the left has been pretty silent as well?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: That's right, Anderson. It's a sign of how split both parties are about these long military entanglements. No. I think it's going to quickly fade. We're in such a domestic news cycle, election, economy. Just is with killing Bin Laden a year ago riveted the nation. We shifted back over not very long amount of time. You know, I think the bigger substantive issue, though, in Afghanistan is the place is still a mess.

You know, the president said tonight that in the last three years the tide has turned. Since he became president, he said the tide has turned. I don't think anything has turned. Afghanistan was a mess, it is a mess.

Whether we're there or not, they're going to go on fighting. The war doesn't end. It's just a question of whether we're going to be involved in it or not. I'm fine no longer being involved in it.

We didn't set out on September 11th to stay there forever. So the day has to come when the troops have to come home. I'm glad they're coming home soon. But nobody should think that what the president is doing here means Afghanistan is going to be a land of peace. It won't.

COOPER: Peter Bergen, has the tide turned both against the Taliban and al Qaeda?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: As a factual matter, you're more likely to be murdered in my hometown of Washington, D.C. than you ought to be killed as a civilian in the Afghan war right now.

The violence is pretty relatively low right now and by Afghan stand that this is a picnic. Think about the Soviets when they killed a million people. A civil war that destroyed Kabul killed hundreds of thousands. Think about the rule of the Taliban.

Afghans, let's leave aside our personal views. Afghans have a view their lives are getting better. This is a country without phone service. Now one in three Afghans have a cell phone. This was a country that didn't have a single girl in the school.

Now there are 2 million girls in school. This is a country that the World Bank thought where they had no economic indicators because there were none. In 2009, it had 22 percent GDP growth rate immediately from a low point.

So I mean, I could give you a list of -- there's an optimistic view of Afghanistan. We know what's wrong with the place and it's shared by a lot of Afghans themselves. The one thing they were concerned about was we were going to head for the exits.

Today's decision I think will help them -- will reassure them that we have a long term presence there. Most of them want that. They don't want permanent bases. They don't want to be occupied. No one does. But do they want to feel the United States and its allies aren't heading for the exits.

COOPER: General Marks, in terms of what our military has been doing on the ground, I mean, no one's really used the termination building or no one likes to use that. But it has been a lot of nation building.

MAJOR GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, U.S. ARMY (RETIRED): Absolutely. In fact, what Peter just lay out is spot on. That's not what the United States went into Afghanistan to accomplish.

But it ended up being what we accomplished. And in partnership with the Afghan nation, we will continue to accomplish with our partners. And clearly that's -- this is really an example of mission in its finest.

We went in to accomplish a very specific mission. We did that quite rapidly. In 2001, right before Christmas, the Taliban departed. Then we departed.

In essence we departed of having a party that could do something about a resurgence of the Taliban. We missed that and diverted our attention to Iraq.

But clearly we have been able together to accomplish quite a bit in Afghanistan. We also have a commitment to continue that effort through 2014 and now beyond.

COOPER: Paul Begala, in terms of the president's base committing to stay in Afghanistan for another 12 years essentially, that's not a message some in the president's base want to hear.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, not just the president's base. Both parties, Ari is exactly right, are war weary. This country is war weary. If you look at the CNN poll or any of our polls, voters don't even just want to get out in 2014 like the president does, they want to get out tomorrow.

I do admire John McCain is old school and I admire they're not criticizing our president on foreign soil. I think you're also going to see they're not going to criticize much about this because A, they don't have a better alternative. B, they want this to be Barack Obama's war and it is.

He is responsible for this now. And I think they're happy with that. What the president is trying to do is say I want to rebalance, not invade, conquer and occupy huge countries, but project our power in a more nimble way.

And then rebuild America back home. That's what he said when he formulated this policy at West Point. He said the country I really want to build is the United States.

COOPER: Peter Bergen, it's impossible to talk about what's happening in Afghanistan without talking about what's happening in Pakistan. There has been negotiation -- the relationship with Pakistan is frayed right now to say the least.

BERGEN: Yes, 2011 was the worst year in the relationship. There are some kinds of positive trends in Pakistan that tend to get overlooked in these discussions too. We're going to see the first civilian government in Pakistan in term either the first or second depending how you score it. There's going to be another election either at the end of this year or beginning of next year.

You can then foresee a period for the first time in Pakistani history where you have the civilian government for a decade. The military have no plan for a coup. That's good. Pakistan had four coups already.

It is a very independent -- a lot of anti-Taliban, pro-democracy. There was an Arab spring in Pakistan before there was an Arab spring in the Arab world where they got rid of a military dictator.

There's an independent judiciary that is doing cases against both the military and the civilian government. These are institutions that are important to Pakistan's future. What Pakistan hasn't had yet is particularly good leadership. Hopefully in the next few years a leader will come out.

COOPER: Peter Bergen, I appreciate you being with us. Peter's new book is called "Man Hunt." It really takes you inside the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. It just came out. It's really a good read. I recommend it. Ari Fleischer, thank you. Paul Begala and General Marks as well.

Our breaking news coverage continues. The late word of another overseas trip. We'll be right back.


COOPER: We're following a number of other stories. Obviously, Isha's here with the "360 News and Business Bulletin" -- Isha.

ISHA SESAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, more breaking news tonight. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has landed in Beijing for talks with the Chinese government.

It's a sensitive time in U.S.-Chinese relations due to the whereabouts of a Chinese activist who escaped house arrest and may be at the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

The United Nations today accused both sides of violating a cease- fire agreement in Syria. The chief UN peacekeeper said, the Syrian regime continues to deploy heavy weapons in cities.

Now this video purportedly shows tanks in Idlib today. Opposition activists said at least 43 people were killed across the country. Separately 12 Syrian soldiers reportedly died in clashes with military defectors.

An FBI sting has led to the arrest of five men who allegedly conspired to blow up a bridge near Cleveland. Authorities say at least three of the suspects are self-proclaimed anarchists.

And "Occupy" movement stage May Day demonstrations from L.A. to New York today. May Day is traditionally a day of workers' protest around the world. Workers gathered for marches and demonstrations in countries including Greece, Turkey, and Spain. A lot of drama in the streets today.

COOPER: Isha, appreciate that. We'll be right back.


COOPER: It has been quite a few dramatic hours for the troops on the ground in Afghanistan as well as for the president. The president is heading home at this hour.

After spending a few hours on the ground in Afghanistan signing a strategic partnership agreement with Afghan's president Hamid Karzai.

Our coverage is going to continue throughout the evening. We'll have another edition of "360" at 10:00 tonight for all the latest. That does it for us. "PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT" starts now.