President Barack Obama says 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after this year, but all could be withdrawn if Afghan leaders do not sign a joint security agreement.
The president laid out his plans Tuesday for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan and bringing America's longest war to what he called a "responsible end." He told reporters in the White House Rose Garden that this is the year the United States will conclude its combat mission in Afghanistan and hand over security responsibility to Afghan forces.
"At the beginning of 2015, we will have approximately 9,800 U.S. service members in different parts of the country, together with our NATO allies and other partners. By the end of 2015, we will have reduced that presence by roughly half."
Obama said U.S. troops at that point will work only in Kabul and at Bagram air base, near the Afghan capital. By the end of 2016, he said, U.S. forces will be withdrawn with only a normal embassy presence remaining -- similar to that left in Iraq, where Obama withdrew troops in 2011.
There are about 32,000 troops left in Afghanistan. Those who remain will continue training Afghan forces and support counter-terrorism operations.
The U.S. sent forces into Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the governing Taliban, which had harbored al-Qaeda -- the group responsible for the September 11 attacks in the United States.
"I think Americans have learned that it's harder to end wars than it is to begin them. Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century. Not through signing ceremonies, but through decisive blows against our adversaries, transitions to elected governments, security forces who are trained to take the lead and ultimately full responsibility," said Obama.
The drawdown plan has drawn criticism from some members of Congress. The head of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon, said Obama is putting poll numbers over security, called the timeline arbitrary and suggested the plan leaves Afghanistan vulnerable to the kind of chaos that has plagued Iraq since U.S. troops departed.
The president still may order a full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan this year, if the new Afghan leadership does not sign the bilateral security agreement.
Senior administration officials say the fact that both run-off candidates in Afghanistan's presidential elections have pledged to sign the agreement gave Obama confidence to announce the withdrawal plan on Tuesday.
The announcement came a day before the U.S. leader delivers a speech in which he will outline the direction of U.S. foreign policy after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.