Half of the remaining 66,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan will return home by this time next year, President Obama announced in his State of the Union Address Tuesday–a promise consistent with his objective of handing over control to the Afghans by the end of 2014.
Obama struck an optimistic tone on the U.S. effort in Afghanistan while conveying strategic support to Afghan security forces in the future:
Tonight, we stand united in saluting the troops and civilians who sacrifice every day to protect us. Because of them, we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan, and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaeda. Already, we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women. This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.
Beyond 2014, America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change. We are negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counter-terrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates.
In a statement Tuesday, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta echoed the resident’s commitment, pledging to “maintain a long-term commitment to Afghanistan including through the continued training and equipping of Afghan forces and counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda and their affiliates.”
Obama addressed the challenges of a significantly changed al Qaeda network than the one he first countered in 2009, acknowledging recent turmoil Mali, unrest in Libya and a diffuse but formidable al-Qaeda network in the Arabian peninsula:
Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged–from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.