US President Barack Obama has unveiled his path out of America's longest war, pledging to end combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of the year and using a small US force temporarily to train the Afghans to fight Al Qaida.
"We're finishing the job we started," Obama said at the White House. "America's combat mission will be over by the end of this year. . . . We will no longer patrol Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys. That is a task for the Afghan people."
The US will end its 13-year combat mission as scheduled by the end of this year, Obama said. A force of 9800 will remain for another year in an advisory capacity to train Afghan security forces and support counterterrorism operations.
Those numbers would be reduced by half by the end of 2015 and winnowed down to a "normal embassy presence" - similar to the US role in Iraq - by the end of 2016.
The residual forces will stay only if Afghanistan's government agrees to sign a bilateral security agreement with the US, Obama said. Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to do so, but Obama said the two candidates competing in a June 14 runoff election to succeed Karzai - Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai - have each indicated they'd sign the agreement promptly.
The announcement comes two days after Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan to visit with US troops, saying that for many it would be their last tour of duty in the country.
Obama - who once called Afghanistan a "war of necessity" - acknowledged public fatigue with the war, saying that the US has been engaged in its longest war "longer than many Americans expected".
But he said the US had "struck significant blows" against Al Qaeda, eliminated Osama bin Laden and prevented Afghanistan from being used to launch attacks against the US.
He acknowledged "Afghanistan will not be a perfect place," but he argued it's not the US role to make it perfect.
"The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans," Obama said. "What the United States can do is secure our interests and help give the Afghans a chance, an opportunity, to seek a long overdue and hard-earned peace."
He said the country would continue to receive financial and development assistance, as well as diplomatic support.
House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, welcomed Obama's decision to keep a training and counterterrorism force in Afghanistan, saying that "quitting just short of the goal line" is the biggest challenge for the US.
"The proposed missions are worthy of support, and I hope moving forward that the president will make a strong, robust case to the American people," Boehner said.
But others questioned whether the limited number of troops would be enough to help fledgling Afghan security forces push back against insurgent groups, especially in the second year. US military officials have warned that the US needs to keep between 8000 and 12,000 troops to train Afghan forces if it wants to maintain the progress it has made.
"All in all it doesn't really come across as a coherent plan as much as a polite way of leaving without really taking risks," said Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cordesman, who warned the plan "creates an extremely high risk of failure," also criticized the White House for setting a time line for leaving, saying it has "almost given the opposition an almost ideal opportunity to wait it out."
Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire also criticized the plan.
"The president's decision to set an arbitrary date for the full withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan is a monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy," they said in a joint statement. "This is a short-sighted decision that will make it harder to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly."