Obama: We’re ‘Ending Combat Mission in Afghanistan’--But Troops Will Remain There to Combat al Qaeda

By Terence P. Jeffrey | December 29, 2014 | 11:53 AM EST

President Barack Obama speaking at Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Dec. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

(CNSNews.com) - In a pair of statements made on Christmas Day and Dec. 28, President Obama said that the U.S. is “ending our combat mission in Afghanistan” but that U.S. forces will remain there “to conduct counterterrorism operations” against what he called the “remnants of al Qaeda.”

The president also said of Afghanistan on Christmas Day: “It’s not going to be a source of terrorist attacks again.”

Three years ago, on Dec. 14, 2011, President Obama traveled to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to announce that he was removing the last U.S. troops from Iraq and that the U.S. was “leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government.”

In contrast to Iraq, the administration did negotiate an agreement with the government of Afghanistan to keep troops in the country—and, according to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. will be keeping 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2015.

“This is an important year,” Obama said at Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Dec. 25.

“We’ve been in continuous war now for almost thirteen years—over 13 years,” Obama said. “And next week we will be ending our combat mission in Afghanistan.

“Obviously, because of the extraordinary service of the men and women in the American armed forces, Afghanistan has a chance to rebuild its own country,” Obama continued. “We are safer. It’s not going to be a source of terrorist attacks again.

The White House on Dec. 28 released a “Statement by the President on the End of the Combat Mission in Afghanistan.”

This statement—announcing the “end of the combat mission in Afghanistan”--said U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan “to conduct counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda.”

“Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and the Afghan people and their security forces continue to make tremendous sacrifices in defense of their country,” Obama said in the statement. “At the invitation of the Afghan government, and to preserve the gains we have made together, the United States--along with our allies and partners--will maintain a limited military presence in Afghanistan to train, advise and assist Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda.

“Our personnel will continue to face risks, but this reflects the enduring commitment of the United States to the Afghan people and to a united, secure and sovereign Afghanistan that is never again used as a source of attacks against our nation,” Obama said.

On Dec. 14, 2011, President Obama told U.S. troops at Fort Bragg that the war in Iraq was over and that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.”

“It’s harder to end a war than begin one,” Obama said then. “Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq--all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering--all of it has led to this moment of success.

“Now, Iraq is not a perfect place,” Obama said. “It has many challenges ahead. But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people. We’re building a new partnership between our nations. And we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home. This is an extraordinary achievement, nearly nine years in the making.”

During his reelection campaign in 2012, President Obama frequently pointed out in campaign speeches that he had ended the war in Iraq.

"I told you we would end the war in Iraq. We did," Obama said, for example, at an Oct. 24, 2012 rally in Iowa.

After Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), a terrorist group that had developed out of al Qaeda in Iraq, grew into a formidable force in the region.

“Following Zarqawi’s death at the hands of U.S. forces in June 2006, AQ-I leaders repackaged the group as a coalition known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI),” said the Congressional Research Service in a report published Dec. 8. “ISI lost its two top leaders in 2010 and was weakened, but not eliminated, by the time of the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. Under the leadership of Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al Badri al Samarra’i (aka Abu Bakr al Baghdadi), ISI rebuilt its capabilities. By early 2013, the group was conducting dozens of deadly attacks a month inside Iraq.”

“Since early 2014, Islamic State-led forces, supported by groups linked to ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and some Sunni Arabs, have advanced along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, seizing population centers including Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities,” said CRS. “Since then, IS forces have massacred Syrian and Iraqi adversaries, including some civilians, often from ethnic or religious minorities, and executed American journalists.”

President Obama negotiated an agreement to allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan.

“President Obama announced in May 2014 that the United States plans to keep 9,800 U.S. forces in Afghanistan during 2015 mostly as advisers and trainers, with that number, shrinking to 4,900 in Kabul and at Bagram Airfield during 2016,” said the Congressional Research Service in a report published Dec. 2.

According to this CRS report, both the Taliban and al Qaeda remain active in Afghanistan.

“The core insurgent faction in Afghanistan remains the Taliban movement, much of which remains at least nominally loyal to Mullah Muhammad Umar, leader of the Taliban regime during 1996-2001,” said CRS. “He and those subordinates reportedly still operate from Pakistan, probably areas near the border or near the Pakistani city of Quetta.”

“Some of Umar’s inner circle has remained intact and appear to have become increasingly amenable to a political settlement,” says CRS.

“There are also a substantial number of anti-compromise leaders in the top Taliban ranks. They include Mullah Najibullah (a.k.a. Umar Khatab) and Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir. Zakir, a U.S. detainee in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until 2007, was the top military commander of the Taliban until resigning for health reasons in April 2014,” said CRS. “He remains part of the Taliban inner decisionmaking circle. The hardliners purportedly believes outright Taliban victory is possible as international forces thin out.”

“U.S. officials have long considered Al Qaeda to have a minimal presence in Afghanistan itself, acting there as more a facilitator of rather than a fighting force,” said CRS. “U.S. officials put the number of Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan at between 50-100, operating mostly in provinces of northeastern Afghanistan such as Kunar.

“DOD has expressed concerns that Al Qaeda could regroup in Afghanistan if the security situation there becomes unstable,” said CRS. “Admiral William McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, testified before the House Armed Services Committee on February 27, 2014, that Al Qaeda could reestablish itself in Afghanistan if all U.S. troops depart Afghanistan. Press reports say a key Al Qaeda operative, Faruq a-Qahtani al-Qatari, is working with Afghan militants to train a new generation of Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan.”

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