The era of massive deployments of American troops sent to fight terrorism abroad is coming to an end, President Obama declared in his fifth State of the Union address before Congress.
Roughly 34,000 of the 66,000 troops in Afghanistan will come home by this day next year, Obama said, and the war will be over by the end of next year. Obama did not indicate whether those troops would come home slowly, or be held in the war zone through the warmer fighting months later in the year.
But in their place overseas, the U.S. will continue its counterterrorism mission to track al Qaeda and other organizations the president said are spreading across North Africa, but not without greater transparency and oversight.
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
“As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”
The state of the union, Obama said, is “stronger," suggesting a country in transition -- not as weak as it once was, but not yet where it needs to be.
“Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report,” Obama said at the top, beginning with mention of the global conflicts against terrorism in which the U.S. is embroiled abroad. “After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home.”
In Afghanistan, he said, “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.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta welcomed Obama's drawdown announcement. Panetta, a senior defense official told the E-Ring, long had wanted to wait for Obama's troop decision before leaving office. "He wanted to give [Chuck] Hagel an on-ramp," the official said, of the Afghanistan war, among other issues facing the Pentagon.
In a statement, Panetta said, "I am confident that General [John] Dunford will have the combat power he needs to protect our forces, to continue building up the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces, and to achieve the goal of this campaign to deny al Qaeda a safe haven to attack our homeland."
"Our troops on the ground will continue to be in a tough fight," he continued, "and they will continue to face real challenges, but our fundamental goal is now within sight."
Less than 24 hours after North Korea exploded a nuclear device underground, Obama called out the regime, as well as Iran, in a section of the speech on nuclear weapons. Pyongyang and Tehran must live up to international demands to cease nuclear ambitions, he said, while the U.S. will engage in new talks with Russia, as has been expected, on reducing their arsenals further.
Obama also said the U.S. would stand behind the changes in the Middle East without wading too far into any of them, as democracy movements struggle to flourish.
“The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can -- and will -- insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people. We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian.”