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Washington - President Barack Obama revealed his long-awaited plan for Afghanistan on Tuesday, announcing that a residual force of 9,800 U.S. troops will remain there for one year following the end of combat operations in December. That number will be cut in half at the end of 2015, and reduced at the end of 2016 to a small military presence at the U.S. Embassy.
The plan, despite White House warnings early this year of a possible "zero option," is largely in line with what the U.S. military had requested. It also is in line with what NATO and other international partners said was necessary for them to retain a presence in Afghanistan.
"We're finishing the job we started" more than 12 years ago, when the United States embarked on a war against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan following the September 2001 attacks against this country," Obama said in brief remarks in the Rose Garden.
"It's time to turn the page" from the conflicts that have dominated U.S. foreign policy for more than a decade, he said of the timetable that would end direct U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan at the end of his second term in office.
The residual force, based at various locations around Afghanistan in 2015, will include troops to train and advise Afghan security forces and a separate group of Special Operations forces to continue counterterrorism missions against what Obama called "the remnants of al-Qaida."
Beginning in 2016, about half that force will go home, while the rest will be stationed only in Kabul and at Bagram air base north of the capital. At the end of that year, the force will shrink to the size of a regular armed forces assistance group, largely to handle military sales, under the authority of the U.S. ambassador.
Obama said the plan is contingent upon Afghanistan's new president agreeing to a bilateral security agreement that President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign. The two candidates in a runoff election scheduled for June 14 - Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani - have said they would sign the accord.
The end of the Afghan war will allow resources to be directed to "the changing threat of terrorism, while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe," Obama said.
The administration has said its policies have decimated al-Qaida's Pakistan-based leadership, even as al-Qaida offshoots have spread across the Middle East and Africa. Obama is expected to outline that new reality and his strategy for dealing with it in a speech today at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The Afghan deployment decision is close to the recommendation of Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commander of U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan, who had asked for 10,000 to 12,000 troops.
Senior administration officials, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity to focus attention on Obama's remarks, deflected questions about how the force would be divided between the training and counterterrorism missions.
Until recently, CIA drone attacks on al-Qaida and other groups in Pakistan were a major part of U.S. counterterrorism operations in the Afghanistan war theater. Several factors have led to a suspension of the drone strikes since December, however.
Chief among them was an agreement reached between the administration and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to limit targets to senior al-Qaida figures, none of whom has been located since last year. At the same time, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from eastern Afghanistan has minimized the need for force protection against other Pakistan-based Afghan groups, such as the Haqqani network, that regularly attacked U.S. installations.
One senior official said the administration anticipates an ongoing, narrow focus against al-Qaida rather than other Afghan groups, such as the Haqqanis, that are fighting for control in their own country.
"We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America's responsibility to make it one," Obama said. "The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans."
Reaction to Obama's announcement was varied. It "unquestionably advances our national security interests in Afghanistan," said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "It rightly places the responsibility for Afghanistan's security with the Afghan government and security forces, while maintaining our ability to aggressively defend against terrorism."
Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said he welcomed "clarification regarding the mission and timetable for U.S. forces in Afghanistan," adding, "But I continue to believe that maintaining any troop presence after 2014 should be specifically authorized by a vote in Congress." Some others called for a complete withdrawal at the end of this year.
Leading a number of Republicans who denounced the decision, Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) issued a joint statement calling the "arbitrary date" for full withdrawal "a monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy."
"Wars do not end just because politicians say so," they said.
Word of the announcement was met with skepticism within the Afghan military.
"Obama said this week that he would leave Afghanistan in a responsible way. Leaving in 2016 is not responsible," said one Afghan battalion commander who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
A brigade commander noted the Afghan military's lack of air support and heavy artillery, and said building those capabilities would be "impossible" by 2016 or 2017.
As complete responsibility for combat operations was handed to Afghan forces last year, some U.S. officials held out hope that the Taliban would be more reluctant to target its countrymen than foreign troops. But last year's fighting season turned out to be brutally violent for Afghan soldiers and police, hundreds of whom were killed each month.
Asked about the reason for the post-2014 timetable, a senior official said, "We never signed up to be a permanent security force in Afghanistan." Obama decided early in his first term that his objective would not be "eliminating the Taliban and al-Qaida," the official said, but preventing al-Qaida from again attacking the United States.
The official also cited the importance of "predictability," noting that the gradual transition from U.S. and international force responsibility for operations against the Taliban began on a separate timetable early last year. "There is great utility in people knowing . . . what they're going to be responsible for and when," the official said.
NATO welcomed the announcement, and said that planning for the "new mission" will be discussed at a meeting of alliance defense ministers in Brussels next week.
Several NATO and non-NATO countries with troops in Afghanistan had said they would leave modest contingents behind for training only if the United States did so. Most prominently, Germany is expected to continue operating a base in Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north, and Italy is likely to retain its base in Herat, in the west.
"German public opinion was never very fond of this mission," a senior German official said. "But the government can convince them that it is worthwhile to stay with a much smaller amount of troops," probably around 800 compared with about 3,000 now, for a few more years.
The United States has about 32,800 troops in Afghanistan. The CIA and the State Department have been pressing the White House for a post-2014 decision since late last year to facilitate their own planning.
The United States and other international donors have agreed to spend at least $4 billion a year to support the Afghan security forces between 2015 and 2017. Afghan security forces currently number 382,000, where an administration fact sheet indicated they are likely to remain despite earlier plans to cut the total by at least a third.