Final US ‘surge’ troops exit Afghanistan

The withdrawal of 33,000 surge troops, which began last year, leaves 68,000 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan.

NATO plans to hand off security control in 2014 to the Afghan security forces, and President Obama has said NATO will give the Afghans the lead in combat missions next year.

But Obama has not indicated how the United States will move from the 68,000 troops currently stationed in Afghanistan to 2014, when only a small presence is expected to remain for training, advising and special operations.

Gen. John Allen, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander, has said he would conduct a review of the situation in Afghanistan once the surge troops were gone, which he will present to the president toward the end of the year.

But the war effort in Afghanistan has been hampered by a recent spike in “insider attacks” by Afghan forces on NATO troops, and the United States suspended most joint operations this month in response. The suspension raises questions about the withdrawal plan when U.S. troops are supposed to help the Afghans take the lead for security.

Defense hawks in Congress — who have criticized Obama for not deploying a large enough surge force and removing them all now — have cautioned against withdrawing more U.S. troops too soon, and have called for a “strategic pause” after the joint operations were halted.

Others say the United States should continue a steady reduction in its forces in Afghanistan as it moves toward 2014.

Obama ordered the surge of 33,000 troops in 2009 to put renewed pressure on the Taliban in the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan, as the Afghan forces were built up to eventually be able to take control of security.

“As we reflect on this moment, it is an opportunity to recognize that the surge accomplished its objectives of reversing Taliban momentum on the battlefield, and dramatically increased the size and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF),” Panetta said.