US troops to remain in Afghanistan until end of 2016 to ‘finish the job’
'We're finishing the job we started,' says Obama, but critics call decision a 'monumental mistake'
US President Barack Obama has announced plans for keeping nearly 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan after this year but then withdrawing virtually all by the close of 2016 and the conclusion of his presidency, charting an end to America's longest war.
The drawdown would allow Obama to end America's military engagement in Afghanistan while seeking to protect the gains that have been made in a war in which he significantly intensified US involvement.
"We have to recognise that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America's responsibility to make it one," Obama declared on Tuesday during an appearance in the White House Rose Garden.
He credited American forces, which were first deployed by president George W. Bush within a month of the September 11, 2001 attacks, with striking significant blows against al-Qaeda's leadership, eliminating Osama bin Laden and preventing Afghanistan from being used as a base for strikes against the US.
He said: "Now we're finishing the job we've started."
The drawdown blueprint is contingent on Afghanistan's government signing a stalled bilateral security agreement.
While current Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the accord, US officials say they're confident that either of the candidates running to replace him will finalise the deal. Both candidates who are on the ballot in next month's run-off - former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai - welcomed Obama's announcement on Tuesday.
The size and scope of the residual US force largely mirrors what Pentagon officials had sought, which appeared to give Obama cover with some of the Republicans, including House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner.
But some of the president's harshest critics on foreign policy - senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte - called the decision short-sighted and warned that it would embolden enemies. "The president's decision to set an arbitrary date for the full withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan is a monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy," the three Republicans said in a joint statement.
US forces had already been on track to stop combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, more than 13 years after the American-led invasion. But Obama wants to keep some troops there to train Afghan security forces, launch counterterrorism missions and protect progress made in a war that has left at least 2,181 Americans dead and thousands more wounded.
There are now about 32,000 US troops in Afghanistan. Under Obama's plan, that number would be reduced to 9,800 by the start of 2015. Noting the complexity of his drawdown plan, Obama said: "It's harder to end wars than to begin them."
The formal end of the Afghan war has triggered a White House effort to reframe America's foreign policy after more than a decade of conflict.
The US tried to keep a residual force in Iraq as combat missions there came to an end, but Washington and Baghdad were unable to finalise a security agreement. In the vacuum left by the US military, Iraq has been battered by resurgent waves of violence.
The president is seeking to avoid a similar scenario in Afghanistan, for both security and political purposes.