The decision means that Obama will leave office in early 2017
having extricated the country from the longest war in U.S. history.
He ended Washington's combat presence in Iraq in 2011.
Obama's White House Rose Garden announcement prompted criticism from
Republicans that the hard-fought gains made against the Taliban
could be lost in much the same way that sectarian violence returned
to Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal.
Obama, who made a whirlwind visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan over
the weekend before American combat operations conclude at the end of
2014, appeared to anticipate concerns that he is abandoning
Afghanistan. He said it is time for Afghans to secure their country.
"We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place,
and it is not America's responsibility to make it one," Obama said.
Under his plan, 9,800 U.S. troops would remain behind into next
year. By the end of 2015, that number would be reduced by roughly
By the end of 2016, the U.S. presence would be cut to a normal
embassy presence with a security assistance office in Kabul, as was
done in Iraq.
The 9,800 troops would take an advisory role backing up Afghan
forces. They would train Afghan troops and help guide missions to
rout out remaining al Qaeda targets.
Any U.S. military presence beyond 2014 is contingent on
Afghanistan's government signing a bilateral security agreement with
the United States.
Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign it. But
U.S. officials were encouraged that the two leading candidates in
Afghanistan's presidential race, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani,
have both pledged to sign quickly should they be elected in the
second round of voting set for June 14.
Obama said the lengthy U.S. presence in Afghanistan is proof that
"it's harder to end wars than it is to begin them."
"But this is how wars end in the 21st century: not through signing
ceremonies but through decisive blows against our adversaries,
transitions to elected governments, security forces who are trained
to take the lead and ultimately full responsibility," he said.
While Americans have long since grown weary of a conflict in which
nearly 2,200 U.S. troops have been killed, some Republicans greeted
the news with skepticism.
They continued a drumbeat of criticism of the president's handling
of foreign policy and national security ahead of a speech on the
subject Obama is to give on Wednesday at the U.S. Military Academy
in West Point, New York.
[to top of second column]
"The president's decision to set an arbitrary date for the full
withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a monumental mistake and
a triumph of politics over strategy," Republican Senators John
McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a statement.
A senior Obama administration official bristled at the notion that
the United States would be leaving Afghan forces to do battle
against the Taliban alone.
"We never signed up to be the permanent security force in
Afghanistan to fight against the Taliban," the official, speaking on
condition of anonymity, told reporters.
The United States now has about 32,000 troops in Afghanistan. U.S.
military leaders had pushed for a force of at least around 10,000,
saying it was the minimum required.
Remaining U.S. and NATO forces will advise Afghan forces, focusing
on functions such as budgeting, logistics, and support for security
NATO countries have helped build Afghanistan’s military and other
forces from scratch since 2001. While Afghan forces have grown more
independent, they lack key skills such as intelligence collection
and air power.
As part of the post-2014 force, a small number of U.S. soldiers is
expected to conduct counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and
other hardline militants, located mainly in remote areas along
Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Missy Ryan, David Alexander,
Patricia Zengerle, Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton; Editing by David
Storey and Jonathan Oatis)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.