US to keep only 9,800 troops in Afghanistan
By Christi Parsons and David S. Cloud
By Christi Parsons and David S. Cloud
Tribune Washington Bureau
(MCT) — President Barack Obama's plan to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to fewer than 10,000 by year's end seeks to balance fears that a speedier withdrawal could push Afghan forces to collapse against his desire to end more than a decade of war.
The result is to keep some U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan until the end of his presidency but potentially leave the final outcome of the war to his successor.
After the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, "I think Americans have learned that it's harder to end wars than it is to begin them," Obama said Tuesday in a brief statement in the White House Rose Garden, where he announced the decision on troop levels.
But, he said, "we have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America's responsibility to make it one."
Four years ago, in a major speech at West Point announcing a surge of troops into Afghanistan, Obama said that he was "convinced that our security is at stake" in the outcome there. That led to a deployment of additional U.S. troops that for a time brought the total to 100,000.
In his remarks Tuesday announcing the withdrawal of most of the 32,000 who remain, he suggested the U.S. had achieved the major goals that justified the war:
"We have struck significant blows against al-Qaida's leadership, we have eliminated Osama bin Laden, and we've prevented Afghanistan from being used to launch attacks against our homeland.
"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," he said.
Starting next year, Obama said, the U.S. will end its combat missions in Afghanistan and while 9,800 American troops will remain, as well as some from NATO allies, Afghans will be "fully responsible" for securing their country, with the U.S. no longer patrolling "Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys."
The remaining U.S. troops will train Afghan units, protect U.S. diplomats and intelligence agents and take part in counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said.
Obama plans to return to West Point on Wednesday for what aides are billing as a major foreign policy speech, albeit one designed to lay out a broad vision rather than to revisit a difficult war. More than 2,300 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan and thousands more have been injured since the war began in 2001. The death toll this year _ just over 20 _ is far lower than in the past, reflecting the decline in U.S. combat.
The president's decision gave the military fewer American troops than it had requested for next year and for significantly less time than it had sought.
Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander in Afghanistan, had requested at least 10,000 troops and had pushed for months to keep them at least through 2015.
The White House accepted much of that plan, including Dunford's call to array forces around the country, especially in the south and east where the insurgency is strongest. But Obama and his advisers, who had been skeptical that further time would significantly change the situation on the ground, opted for a relatively quick drawdown.
The force will be down to 5,000 by the end of 2015, based solely in Kabul and at Bagram air base, north of the capital. By the time Obama leaves office, the troop presence will have shrunk to no more than a "normal embassy presence" based in Kabul, officials said.
Keeping any forces in Afghanistan after the end of this year is contingent on Afghanistan's next president signing a security deal that will authorize their presence and give them immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a harsh critic of U.S. policy in his country, has refused for months to sign a bilateral security agreement his government negotiated with Washington last fall. But both of the candidates in next month's runoff election to replace him have indicated they would sign it.