- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2014

President Obama said Tuesday that he wants to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the conclusion of formal combat operations at the end of this year, and said all American forces will leave the country by the end of 2016.

Proclaiming “a new chapter in American foreign policy,” Mr. Obama said U.S. forces will no longer patrol Afghan villages and mountain ranges.

“Our relationship will not be defined by war,” the president said in an address in the White House rose garden.

If Afghan leaders agree, the president said, the number of American troops would be reduced to about 5,000 by the end of 2015.

The president flubbed the announcement about declining troop levels on his first attempt, stating that at the start of next year, “We will have approximately 98,000” troops in Afghanistan. Then he paused.

“Let me start that over, just because I want to make sure we don’t get this written wrong,” Mr. Obama said. He went on to say there would be 9,800 troops there next year.

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Mr. Obama approved the diminishing troop levels after conferring with U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan on Sunday, as the U.S. winds down the war begun in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The U.S. now has about 32,000 troops in Afghanistan; the troops that remain next year would help to train Afghan forces and advise on counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda.

The president emphasized that he was keeping campaign promises to bring U.S. troops home from conflicts overseas.

“When I took office, we had nearly 180,000 troops in harms’ way,” he said. “By the end of this year, we will have less than 10,000.”

“This is how wars end in the 21st century; not through signing ceremonies but through decisive blows against our adversaries, [and]transitions to elected governments,” he said.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters Tuesday said the remaining troops would serve only as military advisers, and that Afghan forces would conduct all combat operations after this year. The official said that although al Qaeda’s leadership has been decimated, the U.S. wants to ensure that the terrorist network does not “regenerate” in Afghanistan.

By the end of 2016, the U.S. presence would be cut to a normal embassy staffing with a security assistance office in Kabul, administration officials said.

Addressing critics who say the administration shouldn’t announce its military staffing plans to the Taliban and al Qaeda, a senior administration official said declaring the timeline for troop withdrawals was “necessary for planning purposes” by the U.S. and its allies.

“That allows for everybody to have predictability,” the official said. “There’s great utility in having people know how the plan is going to go.”

Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said he welcomed the president’s announcement on troop levels beyond this year but said he wants more a more detailed explanation about why the administration believes the force levels will be adequate.

“I am pleased that today’s decision supports our military’s request for forces, but I look forward to hearing more specifics on how the proposed troop number will adequately cover the defined missions as well as provide appropriate force protection for our military and civilian personnel,” Mr. Boehner said. “Many Americans have sacrificed to secure our strategic goals in Afghanistan, and far too many have lost their lives or suffered life-altering wounds. The proposed missions are worthy of support, and I hope moving forward that the President will make a strong, robust case to the American people.”

With Afghans about to elect a new president on June 14, the U.S. is looking to sign a security agreement with the candidate who replaces current Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, who had refused to sign a pact. The two leading candidates in Afghanistan’s presidential race, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, both have pledged to sign the security agreement as soon as possible if elected.

Without an agreement, administration officials said the U.S. would withdraw all troops by the end of this year, the so-called “zero option.” But an administration official said the positive comments by both Afghan candidates “gave the president the confidence to make this announcement and provide this clarity.”

Most U.S. troops now serving in Afghanistan will have been withdrawn by the end of this year in what Mr. Obama has called a “responsible end” to the longest war in U.S. history.

“We want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win. And we’re going to make sure that Afghanistan can never again, ever, be used again to launch an attack against our country,” Mr. Obama told troops Sunday in Afghanistan.

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