WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama unveiled his path out of America’s longest war Tuesday, pledging to end combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of the year and using a small U.S. force temporarily to train the Afghans to fight al Qaida.
“We’re finishing the job we started,” Obama said at the White House. “America’s combat mission will be over by the end of this year. . . . We will no longer patrol Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys. That is a task for the Afghan people.”
The U.S. will end its 13-year combat mission as scheduled by the end of this year, Obama said. A force of 9,800 will remain for another year in an advisory capacity to train Afghan security forces and support counterterrorism operations.
Those numbers would be reduced by half by the end of 2015 and winnowed down to a “normal embassy presence” _ similar to the U.S. role in Iraq _ by the end of 2016.
The residual forces will stay only if Afghanistan’s government agrees to sign a bilateral security agreement with the U.S., Obama said. Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to do so, but Obama said the two candidates competing in a June 14 runoff election to succeed Karzai _ Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai _ have each indicated they’d sign the agreement promptly.
The announcement comes two days after Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan to visit with U.S. troops, saying that for many it would be their last tour of duty in the country.
Obama _ who once called Afghanistan a “war of necessity” _ acknowledged public fatigue with the war, saying that the U.S. has been engaged in its longest war “longer than many Americans expected.”
But he said the U.S. had “struck significant blows” against al Qaida, eliminated Osama bin Laden and prevented Afghanistan from being used to launch attacks against the U.S.
He acknowledged “Afghanistan will not be a perfect place,” but he argued it’s not the U.S. role to make it perfect.
“The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans,” Obama said. “What the United States can do is secure our interests and help give the Afghans a chance, an opportunity, to seek a long overdue and hard-earned peace.”
He said the country would continue to receive financial and development assistance, as well as diplomatic support.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, welcomed Obama’s decision to keep a training and counterterrorism force in Afghanistan, saying that “quitting just short of the goal line” is the biggest challenge for the U.S.
“The proposed missions are worthy of support, and I hope moving forward that the president will make a strong, robust case to the American people,” Boehner said.
But others questioned whether the limited number of troops would be enough to help fledgling Afghan security forces push back against insurgent groups, especially in the second year. U.S. military officials have warned that the U.S. needs to keep between 8,000 and 12,000 troops to train Afghan forces if it wants to maintain the progress it has made.
“All in all it doesn’t really come across as a coherent plan as much as a polite way of leaving without really taking risks,” said Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cordesman, who warned the plan “creates an extremely high risk of failure,” also criticized the White House for setting a time line for leaving, saying it has “almost given the opposition an almost ideal opportunity to wait it out.”
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire also criticized the plan.
“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,” they said in a joint statement. “This is a short-sighted decision that will make it harder to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly.”
Obama, who will deliver a broader foreign policy address Wednesday at the U.S. Military Academy, called it “time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
He said closing out the two wars will allow the U.S. to redirect its efforts to combat terrorism in other parts of the region.
“This is how wars end in the 21st century,” Obama said. “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.”
White House officials said the remaining troops would be stationed across Afghanistan and would work with Afghan security forces, as well as NATO allies and partners.
By the close of 2015, the 9,800 troops would be reduced roughly by half and would be consolidated in Kabul and at Bagram Airfield, which Obama visited Sunday.
By the end of 2016, the U.S. would have only a security assistance component at the embassy in Kabul.