President Obama marked the end of America’s longest-ever war Sunday by praising Americans who died in the post-9/11 mission in Afghanistan and trumpeting his efforts to bring troops home, even as he committed to leaving a limited military presence to hand over the bulk of the fight against the Taliban to Afghan forces.
“For more than 13 years, ever since nearly 3,000 innocent lives were taken from us on 9/11, our nation has been at war in Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama said in a statement released by the White House. “Now, thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”
His remarks coincided with a ceremony in the Afghan capital of Kabul to mark the official end of the mission. In front of a small, hand-picked audience at the headquarters of the NATO mission, the green-and-white flag of the International Security Assistance Force was ceremonially rolled up and sheathed, and the flag of the new international mission called Resolute Support was hoisted.
U.S. Gen. John Campbell, commander of ISAF, commemorated the 3,500 international soldiers killed on Afghan battlefields and praised the country’s army for giving him confidence that they are able to take on the fight alone.
“Resolute Support will serve as the bedrock of an enduring partnership” between NATO and Afghanistan, Gen. Campbell told an audience of Afghan and international military officers and officials, as well as diplomats and journalists.
“The road before us remains challenging, but we will triumph,” he added.
Beginning Jan. 1, the new mission will provide training and support for Afghanistan’s military, with the U.S. accounting for almost 11,000 of the 13,500 members of the residual force.
On Sunday, the Pentagon said the U.S. segment of the mission would be known as Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
“Our personnel will continue to face risks, but this reflects the enduring commitment of the United States to the Afghan people and to a united, secure and sovereign Afghanistan that is never again used as a source of attacks against our nation,” Mr. Obama said.
Mindful of scandals that have plagued the Veterans Administration, Mr. Obama pledged “to give our many wounded warriors, with wounds seen and unseen, the world-class care and treatment they have earned.”
Above all, he praised the 2,200 soldiers who “made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan.”
The mission, which was initially aimed at toppling the Taliban and rooting out al Qaeda following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, peaked at 140,000 troops in 2010. Obama ordered a surge to drive the insurgents out of strategically important regions, notably in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where the Taliban had its capital from 1996 to 2001.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid called Sunday’s event a “defeat ceremony” and said the insurgents’ fight would continue.
“Since the invasion in 2001 until now, these events have been aimed at changing public opinion, but we will fight until there is not one foreign soldier on Afghan soil and we have established an Islamic state,” he said.
Mr. Obama recently expanded the role of U.S. forces remaining in the country, allowing them to extend their counterterrorism operations to the Taliban, as well as al Qaeda, and to provide ground and air support for Afghan forces when necessary for at least the next two years.
On Sunday, he touted the fact there are now less than 15,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, down from 180,000 when he took office.
“Some 90 percent of our troops are home,” he said. “Our military remains the finest in the world, and we will remain vigilant against terrorist attacks and in defense of the freedoms and values we hold dear.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports from Afghanistan.