WASHINGTON – Charting an end to America's longest war, President Barack Obama announced plans Tuesday for keeping nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year but then withdrawing virtually all by the close of 2016 and the conclusion of his presidency.
The drawdown would allow Obama to bring America's military engagement in Afghanistan to an end while seeking to protect the gains made in a war in which he significantly intensified U.S. involvement.
“We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America's responsibility to make it one,” Obama declared 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 Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with striking significant blows against al-Qaida's leadership, eliminating Osama bin Laden and preventing Afghanistan from being used as a base for strikes against the U.S.
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, U.S. officials say they're confident that either of the candidates running to replace him will finalize the deal.
Both candidates on the ballot in next month's runoff – former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai – welcomed Obama's announcement Tuesday.
The size and scope of the residual U.S. force largely mirrors what Pentagon officials had sought, which appeared to give Obama cover with some Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
But some of the president's harshest critics on foreign policy – Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire – 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 U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy,” the three Republicans said in a joint statement.
U.S. 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, to launch counterterrorism missions and to protect progress made in a war that has left at least 2,181 Americans dead and thousands more wounded.
There are currently about 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Under Obama's plan, that number would be reduced to 9,800 by the start of 2015, dispatched throughout Afghanistan.
Over the course of next year, the number would be cut in half and consolidated in the capital of Kabul and at Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan.
Those remaining forces would largely be withdrawn by the end of 2016, with fewer than 1,000 remaining to staff a security office in Kabul.
The U.S. tried to keep a residual force in Iraq as combat missions there came to an end, but Washington and Baghdad were unable to finalize a security agreement.
In the vacuum left by the American 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.
While Obama long opposed the Iraq war, he oversaw a surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, giving him greater responsibility for the mission's success or failure.