President Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, gestures Feb. 12 while giving the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill. (Charles Dharapak / Getty Images, pool)
President Barack Obama on Tuesday drove a dagger into the post-9/11 era, declaring the fight against a changed al-Qaida no longer requires the U.S. to “occupy other nations.”
In the first State of the Union address of his second term, Obama declared al-Qaida “a shadow of its former self.”
“Different al-Qaida affiliates and extremist groups have emerged — from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving,” Obama said. “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.”
The commander in chief said “where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans,” Obama said.
That striking passage was an apparent reference to — and a doubling down on — the heavy reliance on special operations missions and drone strikes on which his administration has relied since 2009.
The drone policy has come under fire from Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill in recent weeks. To that end, Obama defended his administration, saying it has worked “tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations.”
Obama vowed to work with lawmakers in coming months to ensure the nation’s “targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances.”
As for the last remaining large-scale American war of the post-9/11 era, Obama announced 34,000 more U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan “over the next year” after 33,000 already have left.
Most U.S. and NATO troops already have taken a backseat to Afghan National Security Forces and police personnel, which are now in the lead in more than 70 percent of their own country, according to Pentagon officials and lawmakers.
Washington is preparing a plan for how many American troops will remain there to fight al-Qaida and its allies after 2014.
“Beyond 2014, America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change,” Obama said.
“We are negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces.”
Some congressional Republicans questioned Obama’s announcement hours before he spoke them at the dais in the House chamber.
“What surprises me most about the information I am receiving from the Pentagon is the president’s decision to halve the U.S. troops during the same year that the Afghan forces will be in the lead across the entire country for the first time,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said in a statement issued a couple hours before the address.
“Moreover, he is deciding to conduct a significant withdrawal U.S. forces by 2014 without respect to anything that may happen on the ground over the next 12 months,” McKeon said. “This approach seems to be needlessly fraught with risk.”
Despite such criticisms, the commander in chief sent a message that he is aggressive moving to bring about an end to America’s longest war in its history.
“This drawdown will continue,” Obama said. “And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”