(CNSNews.com) – Despite accusations that not leaving a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq contributed to its present crisis, President Obama on Tuesday both called the 2011 withdrawal “the right thing to do” and reiterated his intention to remove most U.S. troops from Afghanistan at the end of the year.
“You know that we should never send America’s sons and daughters into harm’s way unless it is absolutely necessary, and we have a plan, and we are resourcing it and prepared to see it through,” he told the national convention of the American Legion in Charlotte, N.C.
“You know the United States has to lead with strength and confidence and wisdom,” Obama continued. “And that’s why, after incredible sacrifice by so many of our men and women in uniform, we removed more than 140,000 troops from Iraq and welcomed those troops home. It was the right thing to do.”
“In just four months, we will complete our combat mission in Afghanistan and America’s longest war will come to a responsible end,” he said.
Obama was speaking on the same day that one of the two contenders for the Afghan presidency raised new threats to boycott a process of auditing votes cast in elections last June. The dispute has already deferred the long-overdue signing of a bilateral security agreement (BSA) that will govern any U.S. troop deployment there after Dec. 31.
The successor to President Hamid Karzai was meant to take office on August 2, but now even the inauguration rescheduled for Sept. 2 is starting to look ambitious.
Obama said last May he wants to retain 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after the International Security Assistance Force mission shuts down at year’s end, cut that number by around half a year later, with all but an embassy security component gone by the end of 2016. But his administration also made it clear that without a BSA, no U.S. troops will remain next year.
Failure to reach agreement with the Iraqis three years ago meant an envisaged U.S. training and counterterrorism force did not remain in that country after the Dec. 31, 2011 withdrawal deadline.
As Iraq’s security crisis deepened this summer, with Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) jihadists seizing territory and committing atrocities across the north, Republican critics slammed the administration for having withdrawn all the troops, with some warning that the mistake could be repeated in Afghanistan.
Obama said earlier this month that not leaving a military presence in Iraq was not his decision, arguing too that even if troops had remained it would not have made little difference to the current situation there.
In his address Tuesday, he reiterated that while he has authorized targeted airstrikes against ISIS fighters, he will not send combat troops back into Iraq.
“I will not allow the United States to be dragged back into another ground war in Iraq, because ultimately, it is up to the Iraqis to bridge their differences and secure themselves.”
The way to “meet today’s evolving terrorist threat,” he said, was “not to send in large-scale military deployments that overstretch our military, and lead for us occupying countries for a long period of time, and end up feeding extremism.”
“Rather, our military action in Iraq has to be part of a broader strategy to protect our people and support our partners to take the fight to ISIL.”
On Afghanistan, Obama said the U.S. will continue to “partner with Afghans so their country can never again be used to launch an attack against the United States.”
“Even as our war in Afghanistan comes to an end, we will stay vigilant,” he said.