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KABUL - President Barack Obama arrived in Afghanistan on Tuesday to conclude an agreement charting future relations with the country, making the unannounced trip in darkness on the first anniversary of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Shortly after he arrived, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed the strategic partnership pact, which sets out a future US role in Afghanistan, including aid and advisers, while trying to reassure Afghans that they will not be abandoned when most NATO combat troops leave in 2014.
Obama's plane landed with shades drawn at Bagram Airbase, north of Kabul, where only months ago thousands of Afghans rioted after US troops accidentally burned copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
Obama got off the plane and then boarded a helicopter with senior aides to meet Karzai at his walled garden palace in Kabul, where they signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) and shook hands.
Within Afghanistan, the palace signing ceremony may be aimed at sending a message to the Taliban and other insurgent groups that they cannot wait out the 130,000 foreign troops in the country, and retake power.
But a senior US official cautioned that no matter what pacts are signed, "Afghanistan is still going to be the third poorest country in the world with a 70 percent literacy rate and some huge sectarian schisms."
Republican Mitt Romney, Obama's likely opponent in the November election, has criticized Obama's handling of Afghanistan, saying the timeline for a withdrawal will only embolden militants and could leave the country vulnerable to a return to power of the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan prior to the US-led invasion.
The speech will focus on the partnership pact and emphasize his plans to wind down the costly and unpopular Afghanistan war where nearly 3,000 US and NATO soldiers have died since the Taliban was ousted in 2001.
Large parts of central Kabul surrounding Karzai's palace were locked down for Obama's arrival, with police sealing off streets around the city's walled Green Zone, home to most embassies and NATO's Afghanistan headquarters.
Insurgents staged coordinated attacks in the same area only weeks before, paralyzing the capital's center and diplomatic area for 18 hours. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks, but US and Afghan officials blamed the militant Haqqani network.
The White House wants to paint Obama's strategy in Afghanistan as successful, despite continued violence there and problems with corruption that have raised concerns about the country's future stability.
Obama plans to host NATO leaders in Chicago on May 20-21 for a summit to discuss the specifics of the troop withdrawals and look at ways to ensure that Afghanistan does not collapse into civil war when foreign forces leave.
The strategic partnership agreement could also help paper over strains in relations between Washington and Kabul which have been hurt by a number of incidents involving US soldiers that have infuriated public opinion, including the massacre of 17 civilians in Kandahar and the Koran burnings at Bagram in February.
Negotiations on the SPA were delayed for months until US negotiators agreed to Karzai's demands to hand over operation of American prisons in the country to Afghan control and give leadership of night raids on homes to Afghan forces.