UNITED NATIONS — Jarred by a new threat to Afghanistan's stability, President Barack Obama vowed Tuesday that the United States will be undeterred in helping Afghans find freedom despite the assassination of a former president and prominent peace leader. The White House said the killing would have "absolutely no effect" on the pace of pulling U.S. troops home from Afghanistan.
The attack cast a shadow over Obama's designed message of the day at the United Nations, the triumphant rebirth of Libya as proof that his vision of global teamwork is succeeding. Suddenly, Afghanistan became an issue of heightened concern.
The assassination of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani offered fresh doubt about Afghanistan's quest for peace; he had led a council seeking a settlement with Taliban insurgents. The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly 10 years, dating to the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., hatched by terrorists who had haven in Afghanistan.
"It is a tragic loss," Obama said in a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai just after the news broke. "I think we both believe that despite this incident, we will not be deterred from creating a path whereby Afghans can live in freedom and safety and security and prosperity."
Karzai, who cut short his United Nations trip in response to the killings, supported Obama's message of resolve but spoke of an enormous loss.
"The mission that he had undertaken was vital, Mr. President, for the Afghan people and for the security of our country and for peace in our country," Karzai said in a somber appearance before reporters with Obama. "We will miss him very, very much. I don't think, Mr. President, that we can fill his place easily."
Rabbani was killed when a suicide bomber hiding explosives in his turban entered Rabbani's house and blew himself up. Rabbani was a wise old man of Afghan politics, and his death will undermine efforts to keep in check the regional and ethnic rivalries that partly feed the insurgency.
The White House said the setback would not alter the U.S. thinking about its ongoing withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan.
"It has absolutely no effect on the process of transition to Afghanistan security lead between now and 2014," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
On a day of fast-moving diplomacy, the Mideast conflict loomed over Obama's visit to the yearly General Assembly gathering of world leaders.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas moved ahead with plans to appeal to the U.N. Security Council for statehood, prompting a veto threat from the Obama administration that threatens to anger many in the Arab world. Obama is pressing for the Palestinians to return to peace talks with Israel instead.
The president will address the General Assembly on Wednesday and is expected to say there are no shortcuts to peace. In a joint appearance Tuesday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Obama made no mention of the Palestinian statehood bid, underscoring the delicacy of the issue. Turkey, a key Muslim ally, supports the Palestinian effort.
Obama's emphasis on Libya's story was a defense of his brand of multilateral leadership, and the kind of emerging success story that the White House wanted in the spotlight.
Speaking at a high-level U.N. meeting Tuesday, the president warned that there would still be difficult days ahead in Libya, as forces loyal to deposed leader Moammar Gadhafi make a fierce stand and the country's provisional leadership grapples with the complex task of setting up a new government. But Obama said it was clear that Libya was now in the hands of its people.
The U.N. played a central role in the early stages of the efforts to protect civilians from attacks by Gadhafi forces. The Security Council swiftly passed a resolution in March authorizing a no-fly zone and approving all necessary steps needed to protect civilians. The U.S. helped lead the military campaign at the outset before NATO took charge.
Gadhafi was eventually driven from power, although fighting still rages.
"Credit for the liberation of Libya belongs to the people of Libya," Obama said. "It was Libyan men and women and children who took to the streets in peaceful protest, who faced down the tanks and endured the snipers' bullets. It was Libyan fighters, often outgunned and outnumbered, who fought pitched battles, town-by-town, block-by-block."
The United Nations has recognized the interim Libyan government, the National Transitional Council, with a U.N. seat. Obama announced Tuesday that the U.S. ambassador was heading back to Tripoli to lead a newly reopened American embassy there.1 comment on this story
"This is how the international community should work in the 21st century — more nations bearing the responsibility and the costs of meeting global challenges," Obama said. To the Libyan people, he added: "This is your chance. And today the world is saying, with one unmistakable voice, we will stand with you."
Obama also met with the National Transitional Council's chairman, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. Obama advisers say they are confident Jalil is heeding the call to make sure the new government in Libya is fair and inclusive.
Meanwhile, Gadhafi tried to rally supporters from hiding on Tuesday, saying in an audio recording that his regime was still alive.