KABUL: The moment Barack Obama chose to visit Afghanistan for the first time in 17 months was a rare chance for him to make the most of a brief window when relations between the two governments are improving after months of crisis, and when the likely fallout of the coming NATO withdrawal is still months away.
The US President outlined his plan to end America's longest foreign war during a surprise visit here, coloured by election-year politics and economic uncertainty, declaring ''this time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end''.
''We have travelled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war,'' the President said from a US military base. ''In the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.''
In the background, however, lurk a host of concerns about how things could go once the bulk of US troops leave and the pipeline of foreign aid slows to a trickle, which is expected to happen by the end of 2014. Both will increase the country's already deep sense of precariousness. And there is concern, too, about whether what once were cornerstone US goals in Afghanistan - establishing reliable security forces, hobbling the insurgency, curbing endemic corruption, securing enduring rights for women and minorities - are now unrealistic given the looming deadline.
''None of the tensions between the United States and the Karzai government have gone away,'' said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in an essay published this week. ''The broader problems with Afghan governance and corruption are not diminishing. Progress in creating effective Afghan forces is increasingly questionable, the insurgents are clearly committed to going on with the fight, and relations with Pakistan seem to take two steps backward for every apparent step forward.''
Even now, months before any substantial draw down, there are growing concerns about whether the Haqqani militant network, fresh off a blitz of attacks that paralysed the capital for a day last month, poses a growing long-term threat. And mainstream Taliban leaders have yet to embrace talks, seemingly willing to bet that they can secure both influence and territory on their own terms once the Americans leave.
On at least one front, however, the trip communicated something of vital importance to the Afghans: reassurance that the United States is not in an all-out scramble to get away.