Washington (CNN, May 27, 2014) — With combat operations in Afghanistan ending this year, President Barack Obama announced Tuesday his plan for almost 10,000 American troops to remain in the country in 2015 if the Afghan government signs a security agreement.
“We will bring America’s longest war to a responsible end,” Obama said in an appearance announced only a few hours before he spoke in the White House Rose Garden.
The announcement offered something to proponents and opponents of a continued U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan after more than a decade of war — the longest in American history.
Obama called for 9,800 U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, along with some allied forces. The number would get cut roughly in half by the end of 2015, and by the of 2016 — shortly before Obama’s presidency concludes — the U.S. military presence would scale down to an embassy security operation, he said.
Currently, the United States has 32,000 troops in Afghanistan. Keeping any there beyond the end of 2014 — when Washington and its NATO allies will formally halt combat operations — depends on Afghanistan signing the security agreement rejected by outgoing President Hamid Karzai, Obama said Tuesday.
Two candidates facing each other in next month’s run-off election to choose Karzai’s successor have indicated they will sign the security pact, Obama said.
“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,” the President said, adding the role of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 will be “disrupting threats posed by al Qaeda, supporting Afghan security forces” and supporting the Afghan people.
Noting it was harder to end a war than start one, Obama said that “Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one.”
In a background call with journalists before Obama’s announcement, senior administration officials said the intention was to show continued international support for Afghanistan as it transitions to its new elected government.
The successful first round of voting showed Afghanistan forces now were capable of providing security, the officials said.
Obama’s announcement came the day before he delivers a foreign policy speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. On Tuesday, the President indicated the shift in resources permitted by ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would allow increase counter-terrorism assets in Africa and elsewhere.
Until now, Obama’s administration has been reluctant to assign a number to American troop strength in Afghanistan once the combat mission ends.
Republican leaders reacted to reports of Obama’s planned announcement with encouragement for a continuing mission, but skepticism over the rigid time line.
“I’m pleased the White House met the military’s request for forces in Afghanistan. However, holding this mission to an arbitrary egg-timer doesn’t make a lick of sense strategically,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.
House Speaker John Boehner, who has pushed for reaching a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan to keep U.S. troops there, said he welcomed the plans for a continuing mission.
“It has been my long-standing position that input from our commanders about the conditions on the ground should dictate troop decisions, and not an arbitrary number from Washington,” Boehner added in a statement.