President Barack Obama today announced the United States plans to keep nearly 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan next year -- a level largely in line with what U.S. commanders had requested -- and that nearly all U.S. forces will leave the country by the end of 2016, bringing to an end a U.S. military mission that began in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"The bottom line is it's 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," Obama said in a televised address from the White House Rose Garden.
In laying out his military plan for Afghanistan once the U.S.-led NATO mission there ends in December, Obama said keeping 9,800 American troops in the country to train Afghan forces and to support counterterrorism operations will be contingent upon Afghanistan's next president signing a bilateral security agreement with the United States, something outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to do.
"The two final Afghan candidates in the runoff election for president have each indicated they would sign this agreement promptly after taking office, so I'm hopeful we can get this done," Obama said, emphasizing the growing and increasing competence of the Afghan security forces as well as the success of April's first round of presidential elections -- despite threats by the Taliban to disrupt them -- as key to the timing of today's announcement.
"This transition has allowed us to steadily draw down our own forces from a peak of 100,000 U.S. troops to roughly 32,000 today," the president said. "Together with our allies and the Afghan government, we have agreed this is the year we will conclude our combat mission in Afghanistan."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he strongly supports Obama's decision. In a statement issued after the president spoke, Hagel said the proposed U.S. troop presence "will help us sustain the significant progress we have made in training and equipping the Afghan national security forces."
As the nation brings an end to its longest war, "all Americans are grateful for the sacrifice and service of the men and women who deployed there over the past 13 years," the secretary said.
For months, U.S. officials have been deliberating over post-2014 U.S. troop levels and had even raised the prospect of a complete pullout of all U.S. forces if the Afghan government refused to sign the bilateral security agreement, a move that would have triggered an end to billions of dollars in foreign aid, upon which the government in Kabul relies heavily.
The post-2014 U.S. troop levels would be in addition to contributions from NATO countries, and a senior administration official said discussion about NATO commitments will continue during an alliance defense ministers conference in Brussels next week. But in his address today, Obama made clear that beginning next year, Afghanistan's security will be fully in the hands of Afghans while U.S. troop levels in the country will continue to be reduced, with those remaining consolidated at Kabul and at Bagram Airfield.
"We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America's responsibility to make it one," he said. "The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans."
By the end of 2016, Obama said, the U.S. military presence in the country will be pared back even further, to a level required to maintain security at the U.S. embassy, along with a security assistance component, similar to current U.S. force levels in Iraq.
Obama's announcement about the way forward in Afghanistan comes two days after he made a brief, unannounced visit to U.S. commanders and troops in the country but did not meet with Karzai, whose relations with the United States have grown increasingly tense. White House officials told reporters the trip was meant to be a visit with troops. Obama and Karzai did speak by phone.
And today's address comes a day before Obama is set to deliver the commencement speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., during which he will outline his foreign policy and national security agenda for the remainder of his second term, including redirecting some of the resources saved by ending the war to "respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism while addressing a broader set of priorities."
"I'm confident that if we carry out this approach, we can not only responsibly end our war in Afghanistan and achieve the objectives that took us to war in the first place, we'll also be able to begin a new chapter in the story of American leadership around the world," he said.