Obama to leave 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan
The plan, despite White House warnings early this year of a possible "zero option," is largely in line with what the U.S. military had requested. It also is in line with what NATO and other international partners said was necessary for them to retain a presence in Afghanistan.
"We're finishing the job we started" more than 12 years ago, when the United States embarked on a war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan following the September 2001 attacks against this country, Obama said in brief remarks in the Rose Garden.
"It's time to turn the page" from the conflicts that have dominated U.S. foreign policy for more than a decade, he said of the timetable that would end direct U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan at the end of his second term in office.
Beginning in 2016, about half that force will go home, while the rest will be stationed only in Kabul and at Bagram Air Base north of the capital. At the end of that year, the force will shrink to the size of a regular armed forces assistance group, largely to handle military sales, under the authority of the U.S. ambassador.
Obama said the plan is contingent upon Afghanistan's new president agreeing to a bilateral security agreement that President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign. The two candidates in a runoff election scheduled for June 14 - Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani - have said they would sign the accord.
The end of the Afghan war will allow resources to be directed to "the changing threat of terrorism, while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe," Obama said.
The administration has said its policies have decimated al-Qaeda's Pakistan-based leadership, even as al-Qaeda offshoots have spread across the Middle East and Africa. Obama is expected to outline that new reality and his strategy for dealing with it in a speech Wednesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The Afghan deployment decision is close to the recommendation of Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commander of U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan, who had asked for 10,000 to 12,000 troops.
Senior administration officials, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity to focus attention on Obama's remarks, deflected questions about how the force would be divided between the training and counterterrorism missions.
Until recently, CIA drone attacks on al-Qaeda and other groups in Pakistan were a major part of U.S. counterterrorism operations in the Afghanistan war theater. Several factors have led to a suspension of the drone strikes since December, however.
Chief among them was an agreement reached between the administration and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to limit targets to senior al-Qaeda figures, none of whom have been located since last year. At the same time, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from eastern Afghanistan has minimized the need for force protection against other Pakistan-based Afghan groups, such as the Haqqani network, that regularly attacked U.S. installations.
"We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America's responsibility to make it one," Obama said. "The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans."
Reaction to Obama's announcement was varied. It "unquestionably advances our national security interests in Afghanistan," said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.). "It rightly places the responsibility for Afghanistan's security with the Afghan government and security forces, while maintaining our ability to aggressively defend against terrorism."
Rep. James McGovern (D., Mass.) said he welcomed "clarification regarding the mission and timetable for U.S. forces in Afghanistan," adding, "But I continue to believe that maintaining any troop presence after 2014 should be specifically authorized by a vote in Congress." Some others called for a complete withdrawal at the end of this year.
Leading a number of Republicans who denounced the decision, Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) issued a joint statement calling the "arbitrary date" for full withdrawal "a monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy."
"Wars do not end just because politicians say so," they said.