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President Obama Visits Afghanistan; Future of Afghanistan?; McCain Praises Obama's Afghanistan Trip

Aired May 1, 2012 - 22:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. It's 10:00 here on the East Coast.

And it's a special edition of 360, tonight's breaking news, President Obama's surprise visit to Afghanistan, what he said to the troops there and what he said to the American people tonight.

He's airborne, heading home already, departing Bagram Air Base earlier tonight, where he arrived just after nightfall. Reporters traveling with the president were sworn to secrecy until Air Force One touched down in the war zone at the air base that often comes under Taliban mortar fight.

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, 10 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 a 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 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.

We have begun a 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.

As 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.


COOPER: Let's get 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. With us tonight, GOP strategist Ari Fleischer. As White House press secretary for President Bush, he's had an inside view to surprise trips like this one. So has Democratic strategist Paul Begala. Full disclosure, he's advising the leading pro-Obama super PAC right now. Also with us tonight, political analysts 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 this search.

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

Ari Fleischer?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think you have witnessed the power of incumbency, Anderson.

This is what presidents do. This is what commanders in chief can do. But I have to add also, 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, but we're tired of it. We want everybody to come home. We want our troops home.

This is a difficult time in foreign policy. It's hard to see this being a significant issue in the election.

COOPER: Paul Begala, a headline from you.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think, right, the power of incumbency, but the responsibility of power.

When Barack Obama took office, there were 32,000 American troops fighting 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 the end, sometime around 2014.

Gloria Borger, a headline from you.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR 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?


Interesting how much more forceful and how much more of a leader he is on the foreign affairs front than in domestic policy. Here'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 giving credit to the troops, as he should, even as he extended America's stay in the region.

COOPER: Let's dig deeper on some of the details.

Peter Bergen, you called this an agreement to make an agreement. What do you mean?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, according to senior administration officials I spoke to this afternoon, there's going to be about a year when 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 post-2014.

And some of that's conditions-based. But to get to a status of forces agreement, which is the real technical term for a longer -- this is what is described as a nonbinding 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 -- but it's -- not -- 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 something pretty big about President Obama. Here's the guy who was an anti-war president, 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 quintupled 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 been kind of an unexpected president, I think, for a lot of people of him as sort of a basically 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 have operations.


COOPER: You and I have been out on patrol in Helmand Province and elsewhere in Afghanistan with the Afghan troops.

I think you and I were on a patrol where we were 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: Yes. And I have been on patrol with Afghan policemen who are smoking pot.

And they're not -- 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 has yet to happen with the Afghan national security forces. 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: And one year ago, 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.


COOPER: You have just written a definitive book about the hunt for bin Laden, "Manhunt."

The president talks a lot about hunting al Qaeda. The Taliban, though, most people acknowledge there's not much al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan anymore.

The Taliban is still very much a presence able to, we just saw two weeks ago, operate -- launch attacks in the capital itself.

BERGEN: Yes. But I think that these are spectacular attacks that don't necessarily mean that we -- I can't think of a single major city that the Taliban or even big town that the Taliban have ever held. They can't do a Tet Offensive on Kabul.

The point is, is their relative weakness -- you have got the Afghan national security forces, who are relatively weak. And you have got the Taliban, who are a little bit stronger than they have been in the past. But if we sort of left tomorrow, the Taliban might take over a large chunk of the country, not because they're strong, but because the Afghan national security forces remain weak.

So, building those forces up and having the plan with the advisers going forward after 2014 is critical to critical to make sure they don't have that success.

COOPER: David Gergen, just yesterday, before a lot of people knew 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 to -- 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. And 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 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. But 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 that we have -- we are leaving one era where bin Laden was threatening us, but we're moving into a new era that serious observers are saying this is actually going to be more dangerous than it looks.

Pakistan remains volatile. It's building some 12 nuclear weapons a year. You have got al Qaeda is -- Islamic militants are taking more political control of the Middle East in places like Egypt. And so 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, is sort of say, well, basically we're now safe, when we are not. And there is a lot out there 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, was this good politics?

BORGER: Was what good politics? The trip?

COOPER: This trip, yes.

BORGER: Well, 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 two unpopular wars, Iraq, Afghanistan.

Seven out of 10 Americans want to get out of Afghanistan, most of whom want to get out tomorrow, and not wait until 2014. So from the president's point of view, this works.

COOPER: We have 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 will 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 address? We're on Facebook, Google+. 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 war came to us on 9/11. And there are a whole bunch of folks here, I will 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 citizen killed, then we understand what we have to do.


COOPER: President Obama tonight at Bagram Air Base 10.5 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 supporters would say, 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 is not yet over. Some of your buddies are going to get injured. And 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 have 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 systemically, we have been able to decimate the ranks of al Qaeda.

And a year ago, we were able to finally bring Osama bin Laden to justice. (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)


COOPER: This trip is not only a surprise. It's also been a race to get the president in 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 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 trips, 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 CORRESPONDENT: Well, initially, it was -- of course, the Afghan media broke this around about 6:00 local time. U.S. and Afghan officials desperate trying to firefight 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 the safest you can imagine flying into Bagram, a base occasionally attacked, but one there is an immense American firepower 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 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.

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 that like?


Now, sometimes, perhaps they're overstating the risk, but they want to be extra pre-cautious -- 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. They would rather he take a nondescript military plane, the type that flies in every couple 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 had 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 risks of a mortar fire or rocket-propelled grenade, something like that.

The way out is even dicier, because then everybody knows the president of the United States is on the ground. Everyone's 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 the foot on the brake. You gun the gas and then a 747 going up at a 45 or even more of an angle. You can 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 Kabul? Do you see U.S. forces, international forces, or do you see -- is it 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 in the occasional armored groups. But they maintain a pretty low presence here. Afghans have been in charge of the capital security for some time 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 an Afghan security force which, to be honest, on the ground, as you heard Peter say, is often very patchy.

I have seen American soldiers regularly express deep frustration, if not (INAUDIBLE) ridicule, to be honest, at the lack of professionalism of the Afghan security forces.

But because of this expedited timetable for withdrawal, we're increasingly hearing, we're being basically told on a more regular basis how good these security forces are and how they can keep this insurgency, which has given NATO significant trouble over the last decade, how they can keep that insurgency in check, Anderson.

COOPER: We have also seen increasing attacks by Afghan security forces or insurgents 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.

Fran, just strategically, as you look at this agreement that has been signed, how significant is it?

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, look, it is a sort of a 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, just signed this, and done this via electronically or whatever.

TOWNSEND: That's right.

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 have seen a number of over the years concerns about the role international forces have been willing to play. There have been strict rules of engagement for some of the various forces, Peter.

BERGEN: Yes. And some countries have pulled out. The Australians, for instance, who aren't part of NATO, pulled out.

I think at the NATO summit on May 20 in Chicago, if NATO is going to survive as an idea, it's got to make the Afghan thing sort of plausibly work. And I think $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 promised by the Afghans.

I'm sure at Chicago, there will be some agreement for some level of the 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 -- we have been spending about $100 billion a year in Afghanistan right now, $4 billion is quite a sort of relatively small amount.

COOPER: It's a lot -- 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.

So, 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 a military?

BERGEN: Well, as a factual matter, it costs about a 50th -- for an American soldier and an Afghan soldier, the cost is about a 50th less.

From a cost point of view, it makes sense. On the morning of September 11, 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, it's probably worth spending a fair amount of money in Afghanistan going forward to prevent that.

COOPER: General Marks, do you believe there is reason to have increasing confidence in the Afghan national army, in the Afghan national police force?

GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: We have no other choice.

We need to have confidence in what they can achieve. Clearly, you look at where they started and where they are, and there's clearly 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.


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

MARKS: I would trust, but verify. I would have no choice but to have that soldier, that Afghan soldier next to me. I mean, that would be the mission. But I would have to verify that that individual is in fact capable of doing what he needs to do.

And I would 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 who assure that the Afghan forces can continue to grow.

COOPER: General Marks, let me ask you this question. And it may be a dumb question. And I have been on patrol, 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? Are we trying to get them to a level -- clearly, we're trying to get them to a level that they have 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 how the United States is now training them to present themselves. The Soviets had large formations. And the mujahideen could 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 ask 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 U.S. 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 him to do is sacrifice his life and carry something into -- into some crowded village.

COOPER: It's easier to do than try to provide security for a village or trying to -- to be a police officer in a town.

Fran, do you have confidence in the Afghan forces?

TOWNSEND: I think the key that nobody's 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: That also 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 initially going to trust that general or want to fight for that person.

TOWNSEND: That's exactly right. And so we haven't very effectively dealt with the corruption problem up until now. And that was true in the Bush administration. It's true in the Obama administration. Partly because we don't want to talk about it. I mean, until -- until we address this directly with the Karzai government, we're not going to solve it. And 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. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ISHA SESAY, CNNI ANCHOR: I'm Isha Sesay with a "360 News & Business Bulletin."

There's more breaking news, reports in Afghanistan. Late word tonight of a large explosion in Kabul. A suicide car bomb, according to Kabul's chief of police. Details coming into us are sketchy. Here's what we know so far.

At 9:47 p.m. Eastern, the U.S. embassy reportedly tweeted this: "Duck and cover here at the embassy. Not a drill. Avoid the area."

Now, witnesses telling CNN in Kabul that he heard a long bang followed by gunfire in the western part of the city. The blast was heard shortly after President Obama's surprise visit to the country had ended.

He was on the ground only a matter of hours, spending time with U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base after signing a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. His visit coming on the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden.

We are monitoring the situation there in Afghanistan very closely for you.

Now, we're getting some more information just coming into me now that we're getting word that the Taliban is claiming responsibility for these attacks there in Afghanistan. That is according to the Reuters news agency. News just coming into us that those explosions heard in Afghanistan are now being claimed by the Taliban, according to Reuters.

We continue to work to get you more details, and we'll bring them to you as soon as we get them.

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 question of 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 ceasefire agreement in Syria. The chief U.N. peacekeeper said the Syrian regime continues to deploy heavy weapons in cities.

This video purportedly shows tanks in Ismit (ph) today. Opposition activists said at least 43 people were killed across the country. Separately, 12 Syrian soldiers reportedly died in clashes with military defectors.

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

We'll be right back.


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 component to the trip at this point in the election cycle.

Mr. Obama, you'll recall, left Washington. Republicans, including the presumptive 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 calling it a good thing. Here's what he said exclusively to CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash.


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

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I really think it's a good thing. And 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 in Congress, including Senator Lindsay Graham and Senator Lieberman, worked on the 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, 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 Democratic people do not want to criticize a sitting president when they're overseas.

BUSH: That's definitely a part of it. It's sometimes -- it's sort of thought of as an old-school tradition, but people like John McCain certainly keep it.

But in this particular case, I've gotten virtually no statements from Republicans at all since the president has spoken. And I think it's primarily 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, "Please talk about it more."

The other thing is that particularly senators like John McCain and 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. And at least this gives -- makes clear to everybody in the region that there will be a U.S. presence on the ground for a pretty long time.

COOPER: All right, Dana. Appreciate it.

Let's bring in CNN political analysts 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 different the senator did not criticize President Obama today?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I actually wasn't criticized [SIC], because as Dana pointed out he's kind of old school on that. And 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 -- this war is unpopular among Democrats and a majority of Republicans, as well. DAVID GERGEN, CNN 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 -- a President Romney or not, can move forward with keeping troops on the ground as long as the casualty numbers are low. And people say -- and it's not terribly expensive.

We after all. have kept troops in Korea now for almost 60 years at the DMZ, as you well know, and at other parts of the world. They've been in the Sinai for a long time. And the public has gone along with that.

A presence in that -- in Afghanistan in a volatile area of the world with Pakistan next door can be really helpful for American foreign policy. So I would imagine this will be something on which there will be general bipartisan agreements. Yes, some people will complain, but as long as the casualties are down and 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 a training role -- a training role and a counterterrorism role.

BORGER: Right.

COOPER: That's sort of undefined.


COOPER: There's 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, then you might see that all 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.

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

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

COOPER: And 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: You know, no, that's right, Anderson. It's a sign of how split both parties are about these non- military entanglements.

No, I think it's going to quickly fade. We're in such a domestic news cycle, an election, economy, just as when the killing of bin Laden a year ago riveted the nation, we shifted back over not a very long amount of time.

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. Again, since he became president, he says. The tide has turned.

I don't think anything has turned. Afghanistan was a mess. It is a mess. And whether we are 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 11 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 don't -- nobody should think 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 home town of Washington, D.C., than you are to be killed as a civilian in the Afghanistan war right now.

The violence is pretty incredibly low. And by Afghan standards, this is a picnic.

Think about the Soviets when they killed a million people, made a third of the population homeless. The civil war that destroyed Kabul, killed hundreds of thousands. Think about the rule of the Taliban.

Afghans, let's leave aside our own personal views, Afghans overwhelmingly continue to have a view that their lives are getting better. This is a company without phone service. Now one in three Afghans has a cell phone. This is a country that didn't have a single girl in school, essentially. Now there are two million girls in school. This is a country that the World Bank stopped measuring in economic indicators because there were none. In 2009, they had 22 percent GDP growth rate, admittedly from a low point.

So I can give you a whole list of -- there's an optimistic view in 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 is that 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 and they -- most of them want that.

They don't want permanent bases. They don't want to be occupied. No one does. But they do want to feel that the United States and its allies isn't headed for the exits.

COOPER: General Marks, in terms of what our military has been doing on the ground, I mean, no one has really used the termination building. Or no one likes to use that term under the Bush administration, under the Obama administration, but it has been a lot of nation building.

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Absolutely. In fact, what Peter just laid 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 what, in partnership with the Afghan nation, we will continue to accomplish with our partners.

And clearly, this is really an example of mission creep at its finest. We in to accomplish a very specific mission. We did that quite rapidly in 2001 right before Christmas. The Taliban departed.

And then we departed, in essence. We departed in terms of having a presence that could do something about a resurgence of the Taliban. And we missed that. We 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 -- that effort through 2014 and now beyond.

COOPER: Paul Begala, in terms of the president's base, though, 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 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.

And I suspect -- I do admire -- John McCain is old school. And I admire that they're not criticizing the president on foreign soil. I think you're also going to see they're not going to criticize him much about this, because A, they don't have a better alternative. And B, they know -- 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 first 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 Afghanistan without talking about what's happening in Pakistan. And there has been negotiation -- the relationship with Pakistan is frayed right now, to say the least.

BERGEN: Yes. 2011 was sort of the worst year in the relationship.

There are some kind of positive trends in Pakistan that tend to get overlooked in these discussions, too. Again, we're going to see the first civilian government in Pakistan fulfill its term. Either the first or the second, depending on how you score it. There's going to be another election either at the end of this year or the beginning of next year.

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

There's a very independent press. All of the -- American, a lot of it's very 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 the militant dictator of Pakistan, President Musharraf.

There's an independent judiciary that is doing cases against both the military and the civilian government.

These are institutions that are very important to Pakistan's future. What Pakistan hasn't had yet is really particularly good leadership. Hopefully, in the next few years, leadership -- a leader will come up.

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. Just came out. It's a really good read; I recommend it.

Ari Fleischer, thank you.

Paul Begala, General Marks, as well.

We'll be right back.


SESAY: A recap of our late-breaking news out of Afghanistan. A suicide car bomb exploded in Kabul shortly after President Obama's surprise visit ended. That's according to Kabul's chief of police.

Now Reuters is reporting that the Taliban is claiming responsibility. Some new details to bring you. Monica Parnell (ph) of Boise, Idaho, told CNN her husband, John (ph), a contractor in Kabul, told her by phone a couple of explosions broke the windows in his compound. She said he told her he and his colleagues were, quote, "under attack," and they ran to bunkers, and their guard started firing. Her husband told her many rooms at the compound were destroyed, and then he hung up.

More details on this story -- we're going to bring them to you as they come in.

Thanks you for watching AC 360. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.